ST. PAUL — There wasn’t a day that went by this season when the Stewartville volleyball team wasn’t supposed to finish as a state champion.
The polls suggested as much, with the Tigers going start to finish as Class AA’s top-ranked club.
After what Stewartville accomplished Saturday at Xcel Energy Center, one thing is certain: These Tigers didn’t disappoint.
“This is what we worked for all along,” Stewartville star senior outside hitter Kaitlyn Prondzinski said. “To now do it is unbelievable.”
What the Tigers did was win a state title, the fifth under 34-year Stewartville coach John Dzubay and their first since 2014. This latest one came Saturday afternoon, Stewartville getting it done against the state’s defending champion, No. 3-ranked North Branch.
The Tigers were pushed to the limit for the second straight day in the process, Stewartville beating North Branch 20-25, 25-19, 25-16, 23-25, 15-12.
It was a North Branch team that boasts one of the top players in the state, senior outside hitter and Ms. Volleyball candidate Cianna Selbitschka.
Selbitschka lived up to her billing, attacking Stewartville with a match-high 33 kills, as well as 17 digs and two blocks
But it wasn’t just her who was a problem for the Tigers. Selbitschka’s supporting cast was also formidable, explaining how the Vikings went 29-4 entering the championship and earned that No. 3 ranking.
“North Branch served really tough,” Dzubay said. “That first set, we couldn’t get anything in system because we were having so much trouble with (North Branch’s) serves. Our players were having a tough time reading the ball.”
After being sent on their heels in that 25-20 opening-set loss, the Tigers righted themselves.
They did it as they considered all of the hard work they’d put in to get to this point, and refusing to be cast away on championship Saturday.
They also did it thanks to all of their ability.
Dzubay, who’s called this arguably the most talented team he’s coached, watched them return to their formidable selves after that first set. The Tigers won set No. 2 25-19 and the third set 25-16 as they found their rhythm and rode the strong play of All-State front-row players Prondzinski and junior Erin Lamb. Senior Lily Welch also figured prominently into Stewartville’s success the second and third sets. While Pronzinski and Lamb were taking advantage of their ability to boom kills, Welch was doing what she does best, angling softer shots into unoccupied spaces on the other side of the net.
“Lily just plays so smart,” said Dzubay, who also got a stellar 46 set assists from Jaidyn Brower. “She tips so well and that is a difficult thing to do.”
In that fifth and deciding set, it was Lamb once again finding a game face that she reserves for such moments.
“I just told myself that I had to lay it all on the line,” Lamb said.
Prondzinski was saying the same thing to herself. Then they went ahead and did it, Lamb nailing three of her team-high 21 kills in that state-title deciding fifth set, and Prondzinski hitting two of her 18.
It was two straight Prondzinski slams, followed by a Jolie Stecher block and then a Lamb kill that put Stewartville in great shape, leading 13-8. Finally, after the Vikings had drawn to 13-12, Lamb ended things. There was a kill by her and then another one.
Stewartville, which was in the state tournament for the first time since 2015, had its championship.
"We said we were going to do it, and then we did," said Lamb, who along with Prondzinski and Welch were named to the all-tournament team. "When I saw the ball hit the floor (on her last kill), I got instant chills. To win a state championship, it's an incredible feeling."
Stewartville 3, North Branch 2
North Branch 25 19 16 25 12
Stewartville 20 25 25 23 15
North Branch: Paige Sheehan 5 kills, 48 assists, 11 digs; Paige Peaslee 9 kills; Cianna Selbitschka 33 kills, 1 assists, 17 digs, 2 blocks; Haley Hadrava 3 kills, 1 assist, 1 ace, 2 digs; Reagan Irons 6 kills; Emily Benedict 2 kills, 2 digs.
Stewartville: Jolie Stecher 5 kills, 2 assists, 9 digs, 1 block; Allie Eliott 2 assists, 9 digs; Jaidyn Brower 3 kills, 46 assists, 1 ace, 11 digs; Lily Welch 12 kills 1 assist, 2 aces, 23 digs; Erin Lamb 21 kills, 2 assists, 1 ace, 16 digs, 1 block; Kaitlyn Prondzinski 18 kills, 2 assists; 10 digs.