ST. PAUL – The long walk to the press conference room at the state tournament for two Mayer Lutheran seniors was a bit more enjoyable than the last time they made the trip. Instead of hanging their heads over a loss like they did when they were upset in five sets as the No. 2 seed back in 2018, seniors Emma Lade and Lilly Wachholz were all smiles as they and their team took care of business in a 3-0 (25-4, 25-10, 25-16) sweep over South Ridge in the Class A State Quarterfinals Thursday night.
“You can’t forget what happened,” Mayer Lutheran coach Joelle Grimsley said. “Lilly came into this conference room saying this is a lot different than the last time we came here. Last time we were crying and sad. We’re not going to repeat that this year. So far, so good.”
Mayer Lutheran, the top seed in the Class A state tournament, came in as heavy favorites in their opening game. A team that’s taken in one game at a time all season long, the Crusaders were reminded why that’s so important after seeing the top two seeds in Class AA get upset earlier in the day.
“The very first thing we said when we got back to our rooms and back together was that anything can happen on any given night,” Grimsley said. “That did reiterate what we’ve been preaching all year.”
The message was well-received by Grimsley’s team. Mayer Lutheran wasted no time in getting things rolling as they opened the first set on a 12-1 run. They held the Panthers to just four points in the first set as they had things firing on all cylinders.
“There were definitely some nerves and excitement before the game,” Lilly Wachholz said.”When we got on the court, I think everybody played really well.”
“We emphasized being consistent and playing at our level and not playing down to their level,” Gabby Wachholz added. “I think we did pretty well at that.”
Mayer Lutheran dominated play the rest of the way as South Ridge didn’t have an answer for them. Whether at the net or elsewhere on the court, the combination of size and speed was too much for the Panthers to handle.
“I think it’s a force,” Grimsley said. “We’re all so tall but we move fast. The best thing about our group is that we have some that are tall, but we’ve got people who aren’t as tall and can just jump out of the gym. We don’t have to rely just on our height.”
The way Mayer Lutheran’s starters dominated from the start, that gave Grimsley a chance to put all her players in at some point to get the state tournament experience, something she vowed she will always do.
“I’ve been here a few times and there was one time that I didn’t get one player in and I could not stand it,” Grimsley said. “They deserve that opportunity on the court. The timing was right tonight. These girls know we would never be as good as we are without them at every practice. They deserve to be on that court, too. Every one of these starters knows that. I thought they played really well and it was good for them to see what the experience is like. I will never again in my coaching career have somebody not get on the court ”
Mayer Lutheran’s reserves kept the momentum rolling during their time to shine. They completed the sweep as 11 different players had at least one kill in the win that sent the Crusaders to the state semifinals.
“It’s not just ourselves,” Lade said. “That’s really what it’s all about. We play as one team. We practice as one team. It’s not just one player. It’s all about the team connection and chemistry.”
The Crusaders have been a team on a mission all season long. After not getting a shot at state a season ago, senior year is the perfect time for them to give it all they got.
“I think it makes it just that more special,” Lilly Wachholz said. “We have the postseason and there is that end goal that we’ve been working for all season. I think that just pushes us more each game. It’s our last year. We’re just giving it our all every game. Our motto is to show up. Every game we’ve got to show up. Showing up and putting it all out there every game.”
“We’ve had a fairly similar team and that has given us time to grow,” Gabby Wachholz added. “I think we’re stronger and I think it shows on the court. We trust one another.”
Mayer Lutheran will face a familiar foe in the Class A semifinals Friday. Bethlehem Academy is the only thing separating them from a spot in the championship match, and although they already beat the Cardinals once earlier this season, nobody is overlooking them in this matchup.
“They’re scrappy,” Grimsley said. “They’re super scrappy. We have to play hard. Even though we beat them, it doesn’t matter. It’s a whole new venue. It’s a whole new day. Nobody wants to lose here.”
“They’re a good team,” Lade added. “They made it to the state tournament so obviously they’re a good team. I just feel like we have to play our game and we’ll do our job.”
Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports