Things went about as well as possible for Stillwater in the first set of its thrilling Class 3A state quarterfinal volleyball match against Shakopee. The Ponies were passing crisply, playing rock-solid defense at the net and hitting with accuracy.
The rest of the match Thursday at Xcel Energy Center proved much more difficult.
The Ponies' first-set dominance produced a 25-15 victory but their edge slowly eroded as the match went on. After Stillwater took the second set 25-23, Shakopee rallied to win the third set 25-22 and fourth set 25-17.
Worry crept in on the Stillwater side.
"Once we had lost the third and the fourth set, I was really nervous," said Stillwater senior Reece Koehler, who was one of the long, tall Ponies' key weapons with 17 kills and six blocks.
"When you have won the first two sets and lost the next two, it's a difficult thing to come back from."
The Ponies suppressed their concern in the fifth set and replaced it with a calm resolve that helped them win eight consecutive points to take the final set 15-8 and advance to the semifinals.
Looking for a late spark, the Ponies relied on a quote from one of the school's most famous alumni, a recent Olympic cross-country skiing gold medalist.
"If we've got anything left in the tank at the end, then we didn't give our all," Stillwater coach Bob Fisher said. "We steal that from Jessie Diggins."
For Shakopee, in its first state tournament since 2012, falling behind early created too big a hole from which to escape.
"We weren't used to playing a team like Stillwater, which is so middle-heavy," said senior outside hitter Rachel Kilkelly, who led Shakopee with 19 kills.
"We started slow. That's all there is to it," Sabers coach Matt Busch said.
Lakeville South 3, Edina 1: When first-time state entrant Edina settled in, won a set and took a lead in the next, Lake-ville South players weren't concerned. They still held a 2-1 lead. It was just a matter of getting back to basics.
The Cougars rallied from a five-point deficit in the fourth set to win the match 25-16, 25-22, 15-25, 25-20.
"We kind of got away from doing our job," Cougars coach Stephen Willingham said. "We talked about that during timeouts. Doing your job and then just letting instincts take over."
His players listened, battling back on the strength of their renewed focus.
"Our motto this season is grit," senior libero Alena Moldan said. "We wrote it on our arms. It helps us pull together tighter and when we're able to play together, we're so much better."
Edina coach Mark Nelson said,"I wish we'd come out of the gate a little stronger, but in the third set, we controlled the pace to our style a little more. But we just missed a few serves at the end and we lost our momentum."
Champlin Park 3, Moorhead 0: The talented, high-functioning Rebels continued their dominant postseason showing with a 25-15, 25-17, 25-15 victory over Moorhead. Champlin Park has yet to lose a set since the end of the regular season. In fact, it has lost only five sets all season.
"There's not a lot we have to worry about with jealousy or who's going to get the ball or anything like that," Champlin Park coach John Yunker said. "We have a lot of talent and Izzy [Ashburn] finds people at the right times and everybody is excited for the person next to them."
The Rebels professed to have a case of pre-match nerves, but it never showed. With Ashburn, a setter named Ms. Volleyball on Wednesday, distributing the ball among her cadre of talented hitters, Champlin Park took control quickly and never let the Spuds get momentum.
"Any time you come to state, the nerves are going to start right away," Ashburn said. "We just handled it how we expected."
Moorhead coach Char Lien said, "They play at a high level, day in and day out. They're used to tough matches. It gives them an edge."
Eagan 3, Forest Lake 1: Wildcats coach Kathy Gillen insists every year is different. Her players still feel the nerves and the excitement of playing in the state tournament. And she never knows what to expect.
The results, however, rarely change, evidenced by the No. 1-seeded Wildcats' 25-13, 25-11, 17-25, 25-13 victory over the Ranges. It's the sixth consecutive year Eagan has won its opening match.
"It's really hard to prepare because you always have different players," Gillen said. "It's a different atmosphere you can't describe. You try to give them things to focus on that are normal even though being here is far from normal."
Senior hitters Ellie Husemann and Peyton Rude, both of whom had played on three previous state tournament teams, took it upon themselves to set the tone.
"I wasn't nervous. I was more excited," said Husemann, a 6-3 middle hitter. "I just wanted to make sure the team and the younger girls and the new girls didn't let their nerves get to them too much."
Eagan came out looking every bit like the top seed, winning the first two sets comfortably.
Forest Lake rallied to win the third set 25-17 before the Wildcats came back in the fourth.
"We made some mistakes, which was kind of disappointing, because we can play,'' Forest Lake coach Sherri Alm said. "We eliminated more of our mistakes [in the third set] and that's what we wanted to do with all of our opportunities today."