October 30, 2003 at 1:33 p.m.
North Branch 2
It was more than just a playoff game, way more. The fans knew it.
The Chisago Lakes gym was packed with green and gold, red and white, creating one of the best volleyball atmospheres in recent memory.
The players knew it. After Chisago Lakes took game one, North Branch fought back to win game two. Both teams rotated, winning every other game until the Wildcats sneaked by the Vikings in game five to win three game to two.
“I thought the fans definitely got their money’s worth,” smiled DeVries. “You could feel the energy even before the game. The girls showed up early and were ready to go. So was North Branch. They showed up at six, that’s pretty early for a game that starts at seven. Both teams were ready to go.”
And the coaches definitely knew it.
“It was definitely bigger than just a playoff game. It was a huge win for us,” said Nicole DeVries, Chisago Lakes volleyball head coach. “Obviously North Branch wanted to win but I think it was even a bigger win for us because they have beaten us before. To beat North Branch finally, it really got a monkey off our backs. It was huge.”
Both teams were ready. The Wildcats opened up the match by taking lead of 4-1, 7-2 and eventually 14-6 before North Branch called time out. Out of the break, the Vikings responded with a flurry, fighting back to pull within one at one point, 17-16, before the Wildcats finished the game, jumping on top with a 25-20 win.
Game two started almost exactly like game, except this time, the Vikings came back and held on. Down 5-1, North Branch rattled off seven of the next nine points to jump in front. This time it was the Wildcats turn to take a time out and re-group.
The move didn’t work. The Vikings maintained a two point advantage before pulling away late in game two to even the match with a 25-21 win.
Back and forth, back and forth. To start three, the ‘Cats again were a force to be reckoned with. Chisago Lakes opened up the game by taking the first five points. The Vikings re-grouped, charging back, pulling within one before another time out, this time from Chisago, turned the tide.
“Volleyball is a game of runs and that’s the way it went. We would go on a run and then they would,” remarked DeVries. “Whenever I called a time out, I just wanted to let our girls re-group. There was a lot on the line for our seniors. Not to say there wasn’t for North Branch, but our girls did not want to lose on their home court. They really wanted to win at home. During those time outs, we just reminded them of that.”
The Wildcats outscored the Vikings 16-9 the rest of the way, pulling back in front with a game three win. North Branch was once again faced with elimination.
They played that way. In game four, with Chisago in front two games to one and 2-1 on the scoreboard, the Vikings decided they had enough. Before anyone realized it, the serves all of a sudden started to fall, the blocks started to stick, and the Wildcats started to crumble. Leading 18-6 at one point, everyone was already looking ahead to game five, except of course, the Wildcats themselves.
It started harmlessly enough. A Sarah Ploog block at the net, followed by a couple kills by Kari Schmidt. The Viking lead was 20-10, then 21-13, then 22-18! Even though Chisago eventually lost 25-20, everyone agrees that comeback was the turning point.
“I think if we would have lost 10-25, it would’ve been really tough for us to come back,” mentioned DeVries. “That was a great comeback. Even though we lost, it gave us the momentum we needed to go in and win game five.”
“I felt it with North Branch as we were gaining ground,” continued DeVries. “It almost looked like they started to get a little nervous with every point we scored. I don’t know for sure, but I think it made them a little nervous heading into the fifth game knowing we had some momentum.”
“Chisago was definitely improved from the since we saw them earlier in the season,” said North Branch head coach Jim VanEerden. “We tried to hold Kari Schmidt down as best we could. We had some success at times, but in the end, she was just too strong.”
The match had reached its boiling point. Tied at two games apiece, only 15 points remained to determine the winner.
“We had to win the first couple of points, that’s what we talked about. We’ve been really working on starting games strong lately and we had to start strong,” remarked DeVries. “We had to get the first point and keep the momentum on our side.”
They did, jumping in front 2-0. However, the Vikings fought back with a run of their own, taking the lead at 5-2. Right on cue, the ‘Cats punched back, evening the match at 5-5 before re-taking the lead 6-5. North Branch was forced to call a time out.
“We needed to pass a little better to win,” mentioned VanEerden. “At times, the team may have been too tense and the passes didn’t reach their target.”
The Vikings righted the ship out of the break. Down by two, North Branch scored four of the next five points to catapult back in the lead 9-8. It was already the fourth lead change of the game.
Unfortunately for North Branch, there was one more coming. This time coming off a Chisago time out, the ‘Cats gained control of the match, climbing back in front. The Wildcats grabbed a 12-10 lead, then a 13-11 advantage. Throughout the entire game, no team had led by more than three points until the very end. After a Kari Schmidt kill made it 14-11, Sarah Ploog wrapped it up by dishing out an ace, giving the ‘Cats an improbable 15-11 win, securing a three games to two victory.
“We played really well. The only thing they hurt us with was when they hit it down the line and they didn’t do that a whole lot,” said DeVries. “Our serving was solid again. I think we only missed three serves the whole night. It’s so exciting because we wanted North Branch. I wanted them, not Foley. We haven’t beaten them in so long and we wanted a shot. After playing them earlier in the year, I told Jim (VanEerden) right after the match that I couldn’t wait until we played them again. Both teams felt that way.”
On the other side, the loss was hard to take. Jenny Anderson led the Vikings with 14 kills while Abby Fairbanks finished her high school volleyball career with a career high 45 assists. Rachel Brown added 12 kills and Kaity Vichorek struck for 11.
“Both teams played their hearts out,” remarked VanEerden. “I congratulate Chisago. I am very proud of the effort that our players gave. They wanted to win so badly. We just came up a little short.”
As excited as everybody is in the Wildcat camp, Chisago Lakes still has some work to do. The win advanced the ‘Cats to the section final four, pairing them with Hibbing in the section semifinals. The other match will be between St. Francis and Hermantown with the winner of both advancing to the section final on Thursday night.
“Either we’re going to come out strong or flat, there’s not going to be any in between,” remarked DeVries. “I’m a little nervous about that. But on the other hand, we haven’t been this far in like 10 years and the girls know that. They’re excited and I think that might help to prepare us. I watched the tape from when they played North Branch and I think North Branch had a bad game. They made Hibbing look better then they are. Their toughest player is their middle hitter but so is ours. I feel that if I can match them up as much as possible, we’ll be fine.”
CL 25, NB 20
NB 25, CL 21
CL 25, NB 17
NB 25, CL 20
CL 15, NB 11