A year ago, the Blaine volleyball team took the No. 1 seed into the Class 3A state tournament, but little momentum.
"I don't know if the section final was where the players' goals ended but I'm not sure if they were planning beyond that," said Bengals coach Celeste Gorman, noting the line between respecting an opponent while visualizing future success is as thin as a volleyball net.
Unceremoniously bumped from the Xcel Energy Center after consecutive losses, the Bengals vowed to make a better finish in 2012. They open state tournament play as the No. 2 seed against Bemidji (23-7) at 11 a.m. Thursday.
"I think because of last year this team is better prepared," Gorman said. "There is a lot of purpose on their minds. I'd be afraid to play us."
This season, third-ranked Blaine (29-1) stacked up well with the state's finest. The first leg included three matchups against team in the top 10: a nonconference victory over Minnetonka, a loss to Wayzata and then a same-day rebound victory against defending state champion Eden Prairie at the Apple Valley Eagle Invitational.
"I think our kids took their talent, depth and offense for granted," Gorman said. "We weren't very emotional against Wayzata. It just wasn't there."
From there, Blaine won its own tournament by knocking off state tournament qualifier Roseville in the title match. An efficient, nearly flawless match against Maple Grove helped players see their full potential. Winning the Eastview tournament included quality victories against Shakopee and Chaska.
Two losses in that tournament last year, plus an emotional comeback victory against rival Centennial in the section final, left Blaine spent.
The Bengals rolled through a less dramatic section playoff. Only in their 3-1 final victory against Osseo did they need a fourth game.
Leading the charge was the Bengals dynamic duo of Lydia Dimke and Taylor Morgan, whom Gorman called "Division I-caliber athletes who have really developed a competitive, never-quit nature. They do a lot for us in all kinds of ways."
Katherine Hawkins emerged in the match, becoming "the outside hitter she's wanted to be all season," Gorman said. Libero Alex Brown stepped up, making plays all over the court while sophomore Rebecca Hawkins grew up, playing tough in a big match.
Blaine's quiet contributors include Sierra Trost, who sacrificed her more natural position of setter for outside hitter. Jessica Jorgensen holds down the middle, Brooke Christenson adds a presence at the net off the bench and Kali Dahmus impresses with her serving.
"Our peaking is now," Gorman said. "The next portion of our season will show what we're really made of."