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'It's weight off the shoulders': Byron volleyball sweeps Cannon Falls in Bears’ most anticipated game

The Byron volleyball team earned a hard-fought sweep and handed Hiawatha Valley League title contender Cannon Falls its second conference loss of the season on Tuesday.

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Byron volleyball swept Cannon Falls Tuesday night, Oct. 18, 2022, in Byron.
Abby Sharpe / Post Bulletin
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BYRON — Gabby Gartner thought to herself before the third set in Tuesday’s showdown volleyball match: "I want this finishing point."

Gartner and her Byron Bears (5-3 HVL, 17-8 overall) had just grabbed the first two sets from Cannon Falls, the top team in the Hiawatha Valley League. Gartner knew her team could seal the victory in Tuesday's HVL match, and it did.

The final hit of the game went to Gartner’s sister, Sophie. Gabby watched as the Cannon Falls defense set up to return the ball.

As the Bombers' return went into the air, Gabby thought, "I’m ending this. There’s no way this is coming back over to us."

Gabby, with "literally all of my might," she said, recorded the solo block that ended the game, giving the Bears a sweep over the Bombers, 25-15, 28-26, 25-23 at the Byron High School gym.

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The Gartners weren’t the only players to show off their skills and consistency Tuesday night. Middle blocker Lexi Nelson showed off her hustle and endurance, too.

Bears coach Shane Plummer said Nelson is unusual for a middle blocker because “she wants to be known for defense and not for offense.” Her determination to show up on the defensive side was felt by the Bears all night. One series stands out in particular.

Within a minute of play, Nelson ran down a ball to get the second touch and keep it playable. She immediately sprinted from the wall to the net, jumping up for a solo block attempt. Then she ended the next rally with a hard kill. Nelson was seemingly everywhere, always ready to keep her team in the game.

Nelson's defensive hustle comes from her early years of varsity volleyball as a defensive specialist, she said. The motivation also comes from what her mom taught her and her sisters.

“My mom’s always told my sisters and I that if you cannot pass the ball, you can’t set it and then you can’t hit it,” Nelson said. “So I’ve always taken it on myself, like I’m going to get this passed for my teammates, so they can smash the ball. Or I’m going to get this serve so we can set up our offense.

“Sometimes it doesn’t go the way I want it to, but I’m going to give an effort to go get it. Because no matter what, even if it means throwing my body at the floor, I’m going to get it for my team.”

For Nelson, it’s simple: She can control her attitude and effort, and hustle comes with that.

The entire Byron team clicked with their aggressiveness against the Bombers. The final set was hard fought — Cannon Falls (6-2 HVL, 21-7 overall) tied it at 18-18, grabbed a 22-20 lead, and trailed by one at Byron’s match point — but the third set was hardly the most thrilling of the night.

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That distinction goes to the second set.

The Bears ran out with a 5-0 lead to begin the set, but felt that slip away as the Bombers went on an 8-4 run to force a Bears timeout, with a 20-17 Bears lead.

With the set tied at 24-24, the teams traded kills. The Bears took a timeout down 26-25. Cannon Falls sophomore Karsyn Winchell committed a service error and Bears middle blocker Nelson narrowly avoided touching a ball out of bounds, jumping up as she watched the ball hit the floor between her legs. Byron sealed the set win on an error by Elleana Lind, 28-26.

The first set began with little drama. Byron scored the first point and never relinquished the lead. The Bombers defense didn’t have many answers for the Bears offense.

“We were just on a mission,” Gabby Gartner said. “I feel like everyone had that 110% mentality through every single point.”

In the words of the Gartners, the Bears are peaking at the right time — right before the team heads into the postseason.

This season was a journey for the Bears, the first year of Plummer’s leadership. The team has progressed this season, even with players having to learn a new offense, shift positions and try new rotations.

In fact, Plummer deployed an entirely new rotation for Tuesday’s match.

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“It's been a process. I think definitely early in the season we had a lot of issues with getting down on ourselves and feeling a lot of pressure,” Plummer said. “Like they had to be this perceived great team. We tried to really move the mindset away from that to, ‘No, we don't have to set some ridiculous standard for ourselves. We just have to focus on working hard.’”

Going into Tuesday’s match, the Bears had three conference losses. Byron was swept by Stewartville and lost 3-1 against both Kasson-Mantorville and Zumbrota-Mazeppa. That loss against Stewartville was in the early days of the season. Plummer said his team crumbled against the perception that they couldn’t beat a good team like the Tigers.

But after this win against Cannon Falls?

This Byron team feels like it can take on anyone.

“Honestly, if we have that confidence, and we show up like that,” Sophie said, “we can beat Stewartville just like that.”

Byron begins play in the Section 1AAA tournament Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. Cannon Falls will begin play in the Section 1AA tournament Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.

Related Topics: BYRONCANNON FALLSVOLLEYBALL
Abby Sharpe joined the Post Bulletin in February 2022 after graduating from Arizona State University with a sports journalism degree. While at ASU, she created short- and long-form stories for audio and digital. Readers can reach Abby at 507-285-7723 or asharpe@postbulletin.com.
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