The Panthers are back -- just barely.
The Lakeville North volleyball team has been in a pressure cooker all season, part of the fun aftershocks that come with being the defending Class 3A state champion.
Aside from having that gigantic target on their backs, the Panthers this fall also were with a new coach in Steve Willingham and without one of its most dynamic players from last year's state tournament. Taylr McNeil's family moved to Eagan last winter.
Yet Lakeville North rarely was rattled, and entered last Saturday night's Section 3 championship match against No. 1 seed and top-ranked Lakeville South having not lost a game in the postseason.
That changed after the team took a 1-0 lead on its crosstown rival in the championship match when the Cougars showed they meant business, jumping to a 7-1 cushion in the second game en route to the equalizer.
From there, it was on.
The Panthers eventually won the match in a thrilling five games. Neither team scored more than three consecutive points over the final three games.
Asked for what he perceived as the difference in the match, Willingham went literal.
"Two points," he said. "[South] was a great volleyball team. Both teams in terms of their level, competitiveness and heart deserve to be in the state tournament. I feel for our town. What a great night for Lakeville."
The Panthers (25-5) received the No. 2 seed in the state tournament, and open play at 11 a.m. Thursday against unseeded Bemidji (24-8) at Xcel Energy Center.
Predictably, someone blurted out "State champs again!" during the postmatch celebration. But there still are three matches to go before that can happen. Realizing that, each team member knocked on the dark-wood section championship trophy after it was awarded.
"People doubted us, but we never doubted ourselves," senior outside hitter Kelly Nizzari said. "Our thing all year has been to practice today and go out and win tomorrow. We're ready for this. We have the best teams in our section and I feel like working hard and battling through this [victory over South] has us so ready for state. We'll have to play harder than this, but we know we can do it."
It's no secret Nizzari and sophomore Alyssa Goehner provide a potent 1-2 punch from the outside. But the Panthers keep opponents guessing with set schemes to right-side hitter Sami Flattum and middle Nicole Latzig as well. In the fifth game against the Cougars, Flattum had as many kills -- two -- as Nizzari and Goehner.
Flattum's solo block sealed the victory.
"It's not a set spotlight on one or two individuals," Goehner said. "We've just got it. If we hold onto this momentum and keep moving the ball around, we'll pull through."Jags are back
Jordan advanced to the state tournament for the first time since winning the Class 2A championship in 2008 with its section championship victory over LeSueur-Henderson.
The Jaguars (20-10) deceived the No. 2 seed and will open state play at 7 p.m. Thursday against unseeded Sauk Centre (28-4). Six of Jordan's 10 losses this season are to Class 3A teams.