For a team that lost just five sets all season before its Class 3A semifinal match Friday, it was another lost set that lit a spark of confidence for Champlin Park coach John Yunker.
The Rebels fell 27-25 in their first set to Lakeville South, but Yunker saw a lot to like in his team during that set.
"They came at us and we needed to respond," Yunker said. "We needed to be the team we've been all season. I'm extremely proud of how they responded."
The No. 2-seeded Rebels dug in and showed why they're considered among the state's elite teams, posting three consecutive set victories to advance to the Class 3A championship match Saturday with a 25-27, 25-21, 25-18, 25-16 victory.
The victory sets up a title rematch with Eagan, which defeated the Rebels 3-1 in 2016.
"Champlin Park is an incredible team," said coach Stephen Willingham of Lakeville South (28-5). "They're really balanced, they handle the ball well, they're a solid blocking team. We had a game plan coming in that we were able to execute for stretches, but we weren't able to keep it together."
While mega-talented Champlin Park (31-2) goes into nearly every match as a favorite, Yunker makes sure the Rebels never skimp on effort. There's always room for improvement.
"We weren't as clean in certain areas as we'd like to be — serve receive, maybe — but we had the battle factor," he said. "We battled. We stuck to our game plan and believed in each other."
Senior setter Izzy Ashburn, who was named Ms. Volleyball on Wednesday, is known for deftly distributing the ball among her array of hitters but doubles as the Rebels' conscience. She noted that there's more to Champlin Park than its high-profile offense.
"Everything starts with our defense and our backcourt, and it doesn't get enough recognition," Ashburn said. "Like Kaity [Kaitlyn Weimerskirch], our libero, who has been doing a great job. It all leads up to our hitters, which people notice."
Ashburn finished with 40 set assists while the Rebels had three hitters with double-digits in kills: Emma Schmidt had 16, Jordan Stalpes 12 and Lauren Clark 11. Weimerskirch was credited with 10 digs and kept countless balls alive.
Eagan 3, Stillwater 1: It all came down to experience.
Eagan (29-2) had been there before and had a wealth of state tournament familiarity. Stillwater? The Ponies were frisky but just didn't have the background to draw upon as Eagan prevailed in two nail-biting sets and went on to win 21-25, 25-23, 28-26, 25-15.
"I'd like to think that being in this atmosphere helps us to not get rattled," said Eagan coach Kathy Gillen, whose team was making its sixth consecutive appearance in the semifinals, all of which ended in victory.
Stillwater (25-7), playing airtight defense, rallied from a four-point deficit by scoring 12 of the last 16 points to take the first set 25-21.
"We just couldn't put the ball down," Gillen said. "It made for a lot of long rallies. They were getting up some balls I thought were amazing."
The match hinged on the second and third sets, both back-and-forth affairs. In the second, Eagan faced a late deficit but rallied to win 25-23.
The third set was the match's most competitive. Eagan faced four set points and won them all, eventually pulling out a 28-26 victory. That swung the match in Eagan's favor.
"Our team is always cool in big moments," said Kennedi Orr, who finished with 20 kills, 22 set assists and 13 digs. "We come together when we're facing adversity."
Senior Brooke Aschenbrener said, "You give it so much emotion and aggression and effort, it was a dang-it moment when we lost. Your body has to take a breather."
Eagan cruised to a match-clinching 25-15 win in the final set.
"It was a whale of a match," Stillwater coach Bob Fisher said. "Hats off to Eagan. They've been there before."
Senior middle hitter Ellie Husemann, who will play at Minnesota next year, is one of Eagan's most experienced players, a four-year veteran who has made a state championship match every season.
"Just knowing we can fight that hard and come out on top in those sets gives us the confidence to propel us forward," Husemann said. "This is it for the best four years ever. I just want to go out and play my best game tomorrow because this is the coolest experience and I'm never going to forget it."