Still looking for that elusive first section championship, the Gator Volleyball team fell into a 1-2 set deficit and a 22-24 deficit in the fourth set of its Section 8A Championship match versus the Kittson County Central Bearcats— one point away from falling short of that section title again.
After a Gator lift violation gave the Bearcats that 24-22 lead, Gator Head Coach Stacy Dahl called a timeout.
“Sometimes you just have to decide how do you want this thing to end and I think we hung on and hung on and hung on,” Coach Dahl said when asked about the message to her team in this timeout. “And no team is going to hand you anything. You have to go get it.”
The Gators would go and get it. It fought off two match points as part of a 4-0 run to end the fourth set to win it 26-24 and force a fifth set. It then jumped out to an early 5-1 lead in the fifth set before putting the match away on a Riley Gust kill, setting off pandemonium— cheers, hugs, jumps, and tears— amongst the Gator players, coaches, and fans.
Battling back from the brink, the Gators defeated the Bearcats 3-2 (27-25, 19-25, 24-26, 26-24, 15-9) to capture the program’s first ever section title and state tournament berth following action at the University of Minnesota Crookston on November 5.
“I felt like they wanted it,” Coach Dahl said about her team’s late match response. “They clearly did what it took to push that fifth set and then they dictated the game. And that was truly awesome.”
Trailing 22-24, the players said the message from Coach Dahl to them in that fourth set timeout was that they weren’t done yet, but needed to go now.
“Still in it. Go get it. Take it,” Cassie Dahl said about the message.
Coming out of that timeout, the Gators earned one point on a Bearcats’ four-hit violation and another point when a Gator serve was not returned to tie the match at 24-24. Gust then earned a kill and Jade Reese an ace serve to force a fifth set. The Gator players and fans broke out into cheers, as the players on the court went to the bench. The Gators still had work to do in that fifth set.
In this fifth set, the Gators jumped out to a 5-1 lead behind two Gust kills and one Kinsley Hanson kill. The Gators kept at least a three-point margin the rest of the way. Then, leading 11-7, the Gators scored three unanswered points, including a kill each by Kenzie Dahl and Gust, to pull within one point of victory. After a Gator service error and a Bearcats ace made it 14-9, Gust sealed the history-making win with her team-leading nineteenth kill.
The Gator Volleyball program has had some close calls at section titles and state appearances over the years. It advanced to the section title match in 2009, but fell in this match to finish as section runner-up. It also earned a pair of section semifinal appearances— in 2017 and 2019— but fell in each of these matches.
After watching so many close calls and being on the brink of experiencing yet another, Coach Dahl hugged her players and watched them hoist that section championship plaque above their heads. She called this moment tonight incredible.
“These kids have earned every bit of success that they’ve had this year. They’ve worked incredibly hard and they’ve been pushed to a whole different level,” Coach Dahl said. “And so I’m really proud that they came out and just played that hard, with that intensity.”
The Section 8A Champion Gators (29-3) will open against the second-seeded and Section 3A Champion Minneota Vikings (29-4) on Thursday, November 11 at 7 pm in the opening round of the Class A State Volleyball Tournament from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Gators fell to the Vikings 2-0 at the Class A Showcase in Burnsville back on September 25.
Coach Dahl’s message to her team moving forward is to not let up ever.
“They came in clutch tonight and that was fantastic,” Coach Dahl said. “but there are going to be a ton more other teams that are going to be gunning for them.”
She views her team’s potential as high down at the state tournament.
“They’re a pretty well-oiled machine and this maybe was a little bit of a scare tonight,” Coach Dahl said. “And I hope that they can just refuel and be ready because the road doesn’t get any easier and they have to bring it.”
To see the complete story, read the November 10 issue of The Tribune in print or online.