The Panthers' work to slow down Eden Prairie's attack worked well enough to reverse the results from last year's final.
The front lines, where the big names were and all the action took place, were pretty much a wash. But it was in the back row, where the play is dirty and floor burns provide the soundtrack, where the difference was made.
Lakeville North's Abby Monson, Laura Larson and Courtney Hayes spent much of their time using their bodies as floor mops making next-to-impossible digs, but the mighty-mite defensive trio's efforts paid off with a 25-21, 25-19, 19-25, 25-18 victory over Eden Prairie in the Class 3A volleyball championship match at Xcel Energy Center.
The result reversed the outcome from 2011, when Eden Prairie defeated the Panthers in the finals. Lakeville North also won the title in 2010.
"All three of those girls just played great," said Walt Weaver, who returned to coach high school volleyball at Lakeville North this year after retiring in 2006 following 31 years at Apple Valley. "It was very high-level volleyball."
That's not to say that the matchup most fans wanted to see, a power-hitting display between Lakeville North's Alyssa Goehner and Eden Prairie's Sarah Wilhite, was uneventful. Goehner and Wilhite, close friends who play AAU volleyball together, spent plenty of time dropping bombs on the opposition. It was how many that remained in play that provided the distinction.
In the first set, with nearly the same amount of attempts, Goehner racked up 13 kills while Wilhite had six, the result of Lakeville North's ability to get the ball back. The second set was much of the same, as North took a commanding two-set lead, at that point outdigging the Eagles 42-29.
"They're a very good defensive team and we knew that," Eden Prairie coach Chad Becker said. "We knew it wouldn't be easy."
The Eagles went into the third set determined to mimic North's success. It worked, with libero Jamie Cairncross and setter Maddie Reese mirroring the Panthers' trio, giving Eden Prairie its only set victory at 25-19.
"What about Eden Prairie's defense in that third game?" Weaver asked. "That was the best defense I've seen, considering the attack they were facing. I kept thinking, 'It has to end, it has to end,' but it didn't."
The two teams ping-ponged the fourth set, with the Panthers finally gaining an advantage with Goehner operating from the front row, taking a 15-9 lead and holding on for the victory.
North's Goehner (38 kills), setter Erica Handley (56 assists) and right-side hitter Sami Flattum (10 kills) were named to the all-tournament team, but true volleyball watchers knew there were other Panthers who deserved recognition.
"It's not about awards, it's about team," Monson said. "We know what we did. Our teammates know, too. We don't need awards."
Except for one: a state championship trophy.