By Matt Kane
BIG LAKE Coach Becca Rue had explained to her players during the season how awesome playing at the state volleyball tournament in St. Paul is. Rue did so in back-to-back seasons with the 1994 and 1995 Ada-Borup teams, finishing sixth and fifth, respectively, so the coach knew what she was talking about.
Before Saturday night’s Section 5AA finals match against Becker, Rue’s players could only visualize what their coach was talking about and they could only dream about how the experience of playing at state feels. That all ended just after 6 p.m. Saturday, when junior middle hitter Sarah Bingea sent a hard tip over the net and to the floor on the Becker side of the court. That one point sealed the section title for Delano, and put the Tigers in the state tournament for the first time since 2001. Delano’s only other state tournament appearance was in 1980.
A fraction of a second after the ball smacked the court, the Delano girls on the court were raising their arms and jumping into welcoming hugs, just like the players on the bench and the fans in the stands were doing.
“All I could think of was how we are going to state, and we did it all together, and I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” senior outside hitter Angie Snaza said.
The initial reactions were followed by the Delano fans, including the ever present Orange Brigade, filing onto the Big Lake High School court, where more hugs and tears were shared.
“My emotions are running like crazy, I can’t stop crying just because I’m so happy,” senior setter Kylie Crofutt said after countless photos. “This is an awesome part of the season. It’s good we are going to state I’m really excited.
“State has been our dream all along, so this is awesome.”
Both Snaza and Crofutt said they noticed something special about this year’s team early in the season.
“The very first game against Rockford we had such great chemistry together,” Snaza said. “We work really well together and no one has an attitude or an ego problem, we all just are able to pick each other up non-stop.”
Crofutt saw it too.
“As soon as I saw what our lineup was for this year, I knew we had such a good chance at going to state,” Crofutt said. “And our dream came true. It’s exciting.”
Rue knows there is a reason her team made it to state.
“Lucky,” the coach said first about taking a team to state in her first year as head coach. She then talked about the makeup of her team. “Yet, through the summer these girls put in a lot of offseason time. We knew and the girls knew that there could be a possibility if they stepped up their game and played together. All season we never had the drama that some times might have. That makes a huge difference.”
The Tigers’ run to the state tournament was almost flawless. They committed just 11 hitting errors against Becker, finished the regular season with a 26-4 record, and swept through Section 5AA without losing a game in the four matches.
The Tigers opened the playoffs Oct. 25 with a 3-0 win over Brooklyn Center (25-5, 25-6, 25-11), then swept Columbia Heights (25-15, 25-11, 25-14), and captured the Subsection 17 title with a sweep of Orono (25-15, 25-16, 25-18).
Thursday, after winning the subsection title, the first place medals given to the Tiger players and coaches were hung from red ribbons, not the customary blue that is reserved for first place, but there was no doubt Saturday who the section champion was. The medals hung from blue ribbons, and the trophy presented to Crofutt, the team captain, properly read “Girls volleyball Section 5AA champions.”
The kill that officially gave the girls that big trophy was Bingea’s 14th of the match, and it gave Delano a 25-21 win. The Tigers opened the night with a 25-22 win in game one and won game two 25-20. It was a tough day overall for Becker. Just hours before the volleyball team’s bid for the state tournament ended, the Bulldogs’ football team suffered the same fate when it lost to St. Michael-Albertville in the section finals.
At the volleyball game, Delano may have taken it in three games, but it wasn’t your typical sweep, according to Rue.
“When someone looks at it 3-0, it was a harder fought match than that,” Rue pointed out.
Case in point was game one, where Delano and Becker exchanged leads on 11 different occasions. Every time the Tigers would take a lead it seemed the Bulldogs would answer back to tie the game.
With the score tied at 20, Becker finally took a lead when Reyan Robinson hit a rocket to the Delano side of the court. The Bulldogs’ 21-20 lead didn’t last long, though, as the Tigers responded to the Orange Brigade’s chanting request for a “Rue rally” by tying the game at 21. Delano then scored two more consecutive points the second on a kill by Bingea to take a 23-21 lead. Becker then scored its 22nd point and Delano responded with its 24th, prompting Bulldogs coach Jesse Graning to call a time-out. That time-out was crucial for Delano, as it gave Rue a chance to explain the situation to her team.
“In the final time-out of that first game, we said, ‘This is the momentum-getter. We need to jump out and get this game,’ Rue explained. “Huge, and we made sure the girls knew that, and they did know that. Once we got that first game under our belts, I think we felt a little more confident, yet the whole three games were back-and-fort, back-and-forth.”
Rue was correct, her girls did know how important that first-game win was.
“The game one win was huge. That just set the tone for the rest of the match,” Snaza said. “Becker knew then that we were serious about winning, and we were serious about this match.”
The Tigers’ seriousness continued into the second game, where they jumped out to a quick 11-5 lead, prompting a Becker time-out. Delano never lost the lead, and Becker, againt, called a time-out when Delano took a 23-20 lead. The attempt to freeze the Tigers didn’t work, though, as Delano came out of the time-out and scored the next two points to put the game away.
As it did in the second game, Delano jumped out quickly in game three. The Tigers took a 5-0 lead before the Bulldogs woke up with a point. That single Becker point turned the momentum around, and led to 5-1 Bulldog run. This time, with the score tied at six, it was Delano’s turn to call a time-out.
As it did in game one, the time-out worked for the Tigers.
“It’s our ability to not get down on ourselves ever. In that third game, we started out 6-0 and then they came back. We were able to get that first score out of the time-out,” Snaza said. “We are a team that never gets down on ourselves because we know our ability and we know we can always come back.”
Rue explained what she told the girls in that game-three time-out.
“Pretty much I told them to just go after them, and how when you jump out to a 5-0 lead you have to keep that momentum,” Rue said. “When (the Bulldogs) started coming back, we were getting too flustered. It shouldn’t take a time-out to get out of that. That’s pretty much what I told them. Where if they make a mistake they have to get in the middle and regroup. They are pretty good at that. They are a very team oriented group, and that’s why we are getting as far as we are.”
The Tigers know how far they are, but how far can they get is the big question now.
“I think we can go pretty far at state, we just have to keep focused and play as a team,” Crofutt said.
“Hopefully the sky is the limit,” Rue said.
Before they reach the sky, the Tigers will have to start the Class AA state tournament on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center. Delano opens the big dance Thursday night at 7 p.m. against Stewartville, of Section 1AA. Stewartville earned its trip with a 3-0 sweep of Caledonia in its section final.
Delano and Stewartville are familiar with each other. The two squads met Oct. 20 at the Chaska tournament. Delano won the best of three match 2-0 (31-29, 25-18).
In Saturday’s match, during a time-out in the second game, when Delano was leading 23-20, the gymnasium airwaves were filled with the voice of Guns N’ Roses’ lead man Axl Rose, singing “Take me down to the Paradise City. . .” St. Paul is sometimes referred to as “Moscow on the Mississippi,” but to the members of the Delano volleyball nation, St. Paul is Paradise City.