WILLMAR — New Ulm proved to be no easy out for the Willmar volleyball team.

In the opening round of the Section 2AAA tournament Wednesday, the seventh-seeded Eagles built up a six-point lead in the first set that the second-seeded Cardinals had to climb out of.

Then after New Ulm won the third set, the two teams fought tooth-and-nail with a potential fifth set looming.

Ultimately, Willmar was able to secure the four-set victory, 25-23, 25-13, 20-25, 28-26.

“I don’t want to say I didn’t expect it,” said Cardinals senior outside hitter Marissa Rosen, “but they were really good tonight.”

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Said Cardinals head coach Leah Ruter, “They’re a good, tough team and they fought for their lives. They played hard and gave us a run for our money.”

Mackenzie Knofczynski (8) and the Willmar volleyball team celebrate after scoring a point in a Section 2AAA quarterfinal match against New Ulm on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 at the Big Red Gym in Willmar. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Mackenzie Knofczynski (8) and the Willmar volleyball team celebrate after scoring a point in a Section 2AAA quarterfinal match against New Ulm on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 at the Big Red Gym in Willmar. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

In the opening set, the Eagles went ahead 17-11 following a pair of attacking errors by Willmar. But the Cardinals managed to tie it at 18-all, thanks to outside hitter Sydney Schnichels getting three kills in Willmar’s 7-1 run. The two teams were tied at 23-all until the Cardinals scored two straight on a Gretchen Volk ace serve and a New Ulm attacking error.

“We all came together in the middle and were like, all right, guys. We looked each other in the eye and were like, ‘Let’s go. We got this,’” Schnichels said of the team’s first-set turnaround. “We’ll take one deep breath, we’ll get one pass, Lydia (Larson) is going to take the ball and we’re going to side-out right here. Just have confidence in each other.”

“When we’re looking each other in the eye,” Schnichels continued, “we’re thinking that we got this. We have confidence in one another and we’re going to do it.”

The second set was a dominant showing for Willmar as it led by as much as 13 to get the 2-0 lead.

“They just kept up the energy,” Ruter said of the second-set turnaround. “We talked about some of our matches this year going on a roller-coaster ride. For us, being consistent is a big thing. The bench helps out with that (and) the crowd helps out with that.”

Willmar junior Hannah Stark (right) bumps the ball towards the net while teammate Sydney Schnichels looks on during a Section 2AAA quarterfinal match against New Ulm Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 at the Big Red Gym in Willmar. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar junior Hannah Stark (right) bumps the ball towards the net while teammate Sydney Schnichels looks on during a Section 2AAA quarterfinal match against New Ulm Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 at the Big Red Gym in Willmar. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Schnichels pounded the ball all across the court on the way to 23 kills. Mackenzie Knofczynski was a force in the middle with 13 kills and two blocks while Marissa Rosen found space down the sidelines for eight kills.

“The middles were doing a really great job of being loud and drawing the block,” Schnichels said. “I think when we run the slide and then go to the outside, it really opens (the court) up. Marissa had line and she did a really good job hitting that. For me, there was a huge hole. It was perfect. Lydia sets perfectly, the passing was perfect. They couldn’t stop us.”

Turns out, that cushion was important. The Eagles (14-10) weren’t ready to have the season end yet.

The Cardinals had the lead just once, at 18-17, in the third set as New Ulm cut the deficit to one after scoring the last three points.

New Ulm was on the verge of sending the game to a decisive fifth set with a 24-23 lead in the fourth.

During a timeout tied at 23, Ruter told the team, “It’s zero-zero, we don’t change anything that we do. We just do what we can control and (go) one point at a time.”

The two teams traded points until Schnichels had back-to-back kills to put Willmar up 27-26.

The Eagles hit the ball out of bounds on the next point, sending Willmar into the semifinals.

“It was a thriller,” Rosen said with an exhale. “We were on the edge of our seats on the bench. We were working our butts off and not letting anything drop. (New Ulm) did really well against us; it was good competition.”

On Friday, the Cardinals will be back at the Big Red Gym to take on No. 3 seed Mankato West. The Scarlets advanced with a 3-0 win over Mankato East on Wednesday.

Elsewhere in Section 2AAA, top-seeded Marshall swept No. 8 Worthington 3-0. Hutchinson, the No. 4 seed, beat No. 5 St. Peter in three sets.

Willmar senior Bella Mulder (12) high-fives teammate Macee Bobzien while coming to the bench during a Section 2AAA quarterfinal match against New Ulm Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 at the Big Red Gym in Willmar. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Bella Mulder (12) high-fives teammate Macee Bobzien while coming to the bench during a Section 2AAA quarterfinal match against New Ulm Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 at the Big Red Gym in Willmar. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Willmar 3, New Ulm 1

New Ulm (14-10) 23 13 25 26
Willmar (21-7) 25 25 20 28
New Ulm
Stats not available
Willmar

Serving (aces): Sydney Schnichels 2, Mackenzie Knofczynski 2, Gretchen Volk 2, Hannah Stark 1, Allie Rosendahl 1 … Set assists: Lydia Larson 51 … Hitting (kills): Schnichels 23, Knofczynski 13, Marissa Rosen 8, Bella Mulder 5, Dena Mathison 2, Larson 1 … Blocking (aces): Mulder 3-1/2, Knofczynski 2, Mathison 1, Larson 1/2 … Digs (5 or more): Schnichels 12, Stark 8, Volk 8, Rosendahl 7, Knofczynski 5