Detroit Lakes pushes Alexandria but comes up short in 8AAA semifinal
Detroit Lakes gave Alexandria all it could handle, but the comeback effort ran out of gas in the Cardinals' 3-1 victory in the Section 8AAA playoffs.
Following Detroit Lakes’ quarterfinal win at St. Cloud Tech last Thursday, head coach Lynnsey Machakaire stressed this year’s Section 8AAA playoffs felt like a fresh start.
On Tuesday, the fifth-seeded Lakers (10-17) put a lackluster regular-season record behind them and went toe-to-toe with one of the best Class AAA volleyball teams. Top-seeded Alexandria (21-1) survived an upset scare in four sets over a young Detroit Lakes team that was eager to prove it belongs with the big dogs.
“I am super proud,” Machakaire said. “We were right in it… This is a new section. We haven’t seen any of these teams in a while, and we showed that we are part of this section and should be taken seriously.”
Through one set, it looked as if Alexandria would make quick work of an inexperienced opponent. The Cardinals cruised to a 25-8 victory behind eight kills from senior Maggie Anderson. Junior Charlotte Lempka had a pair of kills along with two blocks to give Alexandria an early advantage.
“As soon as we got out there, (Alexandria head coach Mary Byrne) was giving us a pep talk,” Lempka said. “She was like, ‘You have built up to this season. This is the season where we’re going to come out and win. We are so excited.’ That really kind of gave us energy. Mary believes in us, so we’re going to go out there and play hard.”
The Lakers found a rhythm offensively in the second set as they jumped out to a 6-3 lead. The Cardinals went on a 7-1 run before Machakarie burned a timeout. From there, junior Jalynn Gunderson and sophomore Grade Gunderson took control.
On back-to-back points, Jalynn Gunderston recorded her sixth kill of the match before Grace Gunderson put home her ninth to take a 22-17 lead.
“They’re phenomenal athletes,” Machakaire said of Jalynn and Grace Gunderson. “When they need to put that grit down and finish, they can do that. Jalynn got not only herself, but this team going. She can read that court so well and she knows where to go with the ball. Grace can put that ball down, but she also played a lot of smart balls as well. There was one where she pulled the ball back on defense that almost hit the ref stand. We scored off that. These two girls don’t give up.”
With the Lakers leading 24-19, Anderson’s ball sailed out of bounds to square the match 1-1.
“It was a really good set because we’ve never put everything together,” Jalynn Gunderson said of the Lakers’ play in the second set. “When we did, it looked amazing. I think if we would’ve continued that, we could’ve won this.”
Alexandria was in unfamiliar territory, tied 1-1. During the regular season, the Cardinals surrendered just one set in seven matches against section opponents. Dropping the second set was the wake-up call they needed.
“We kind of just expected them to roll over and die, and they obviously didn’t,” Lempka said. “We kind of had to talk ourselves back up. This is section playoffs. We can’t just expect the games to be easy. That was something that really surprised us in the second game.”
Alexandria and Detroit Lakes traded punches until the bitter end of the third set. Tessa McGrane gave the Cardinals a 22-21 lead with an ace. She also came up with several acrobatic digs on defense to save the set for Alexandria.
“They’ve got great athletes,” Machakaire said of Alexandria. “They have a little bit more depth than we do in terms of experience. Don’t serve at their libero. We tend to see that discolored jersey and go at it. I wouldn’t do that against Alex.”
Leading 24-23, Alexandria senior Lilly Thul entered the game before tipping the ball over the outstretched arms of Logan Fredrickson and Grace Gunderson to win the set. It was her only kill of the match to that point.
Detroit Lakes committed three serving errors in a span of eight points in the two-point third-set loss. After a near-perfect second set, the Lakers’ unforced errors proved to be the difference against an Alexandria team with more height and athleticism.
“Mary talked about us just keeping the ball in play,” Lempka said. “We weren’t looking for those hard hits. We were looking for a hit in bounds so we can wait for DL to make mistakes. I feel like instead of trying to be the best player in the game all the time, we kind of slowed it down and did what we could do. That’s when we started picking our game back up.”
The third set started similar to the second as both teams traded punches in a back-and-forth heavyweight bout. The Cardinals began to pull away midway through the set. Sophomore Rylee Johnson put away a kill to cut the deficit to three before junior Kiah Gloege made it 22-21 with her second kill. Gloege also led the Lakers with three aces on the night.
Detroit Lakes’ comeback push ran out of gas in the end. Lempka, who tied the team-high in kills with Anderson at 14, recorded the final two points for the Cardinals to advance to the Section 8AA championship.
“It felt so good, especially because I’ve been working myself up confidence-wise this whole season,” Lempka said. “I felt like today was my peak. Like I was in control. A couple of times, when the ball was coming over, I was like, ‘This is my ball.’ I said it out loud, and that helped me get into the right mindset. It felt so good to hit that final ball down. When everybody rushed onto the court, it was amazing.”
Alexandria will take on second-seeded Sauk Rapids-Rice (12-16) this Saturday in Melrose at 6 p.m. The Cardinals won the only regular-season meeting between the two teams 3-1 on Oct. 14. Lempka believes getting the best Detroit Lakes had to offer was a good thing despite an upset scare.
“It’s actually really good,” Lempka said. “We can’t just expect to play against easy teams and go to state because then we’re going to get crushed. It’s really good to play against super tough competition. It shows the grit in us that we can bring that hammer every time no matter what kind of game it is.”
Detroit Lakes will come back next season with its entire varsity roster. The Lakers didn’t have a senior play a point this playoff run and are eyeing a bright future with more experience under their belts.
“I think, during the season, we weren’t playing our best,” Jalynn Gunderson said. “Our record wasn’t really that good. A lot of the teams we played we definitely could’ve beat. We put it all together tonight, and we’re not losing anyone. We want to keep getting better and better, and hopefully, we can go to state.”
Machakaire echoed Jalynn Gunderson’s expectations for next season with a potential section-championship talented roster.
“One thing we talked about in the locker room is that this should make you eager and make you understand that what we’ve been preaching is what you can be,” Machakaire said. “We’ve got strength, and we’re young. I agree with Jalynn. We could be vying to go to state.”