While so many teams at the state tournament cop to butterflies the size of fruit bats before their opening-round match, Belle Plaine wages a different battle.
The Tigers, ranked No. 1 in Class 2A and seeded No. 1 in the tournament field, are tournament veterans. Their comfortable 25-20, 25-17, 25-18 victory over Perham in the Class 2A quarterfinals was the opening salvo in their fourth straight quest for a state championship.
The problem is, Belle Plaine has been there and done that, winning first-round matches in 2012 and 2014 only to follow up with a loss in the semifinals to Marshall, the champion from the previous season.
When the Tigers take the court in the semifinals Friday, the opponent staring at them across the net will be Stewartville, the 2014 champion.
"That's kind of strange, but you know what? I tell the team that if you want to win [the championship], you have to beat them all at some point anyway," said Belle Plaine coach Cassie Koch. "Actually, it should be a great match. We've got a great offense and they've got a great defense."
The Tigers' offense was on display in the quarterfinals. Led by junior outside hitter Mariena Hayden, a Division I commit (Nevada-Las Vegas), Belle Plaine had little trouble with upstart Perham. Hayden finished with 20 kills and teammate Kaylee Hentges added 13 kills. Junior setter Danielle Taylor spread the ball deftly between the two and ended up with 45 assists.
"I think maybe we were afraid of their big guns," said Perham coach Eryn Moser. "We don't see that Up North."
For Belle Plaine, getting through to the semifinals is old news. Getting past them is a different story.
"Our fans, they expect us to get here, but they don't realize that this is a completely different team than four years ago, than three years ago," Koch said. "These girls have been playing together for two years now and they know each other so well. That is the difference between this team and other teams we've had."
Stewartville 3, Hill-Murray 1: Bouyed by its crazy-effective defense, 2014 champion Stewartville's 25-14, 25-11, 22-25, 25-18 victory looked very familiar, with one large exception: longtime head coach John Dzubay was missing.
Dzubay, the winningest coach in state high school history, was suspended by the MSHSL for the first five games of the regular season for numerous small rules violations. The Stewartville school board took it a step further, suspending Dzubay for the entire postseason.
Senior setter Karissa Kime said the team has been forced to change its priorities. "Every year our team is different and we have to focus on ourselves," she said. "We aren't doing it for the fans or for Dzubay."
Concordia Academy 3, Hermantown 0: The No. 2-seeded Beacons (26-6) overwhelmed Hermantown 25-13, 25-14, 25-18. Concordia spread its 45 kills across six different players, led by Erin Fallert's 14, and shut down Hermantown (25-5) with 14 blocks.
Rocori 3, Morris/Chokio-Alberta 2: The final match of the day turned out to be the closest as Rocori won 21-25, 25-17, 14-25, 25-21, 15-12. Spartans setter Eleanor Holthaus had six of her team-high 15 kills in the final set.