Before their West Region semifinal match against Century last Friday, the St. Mary’s volleyball team gathered round a TV to watch their classmates play for the Class AA football championship.
And after watching St. Mary’s claim its first football title since 1994, a thought occurred to Alex McIntee.
“It’s kind of like it’s the Year of the Saints so far,” she said.
Especially after McIntee and the Saints went out and beat Century to clinch their first state tournament berth since 2008, and followed that up by upsetting Jamestown to win their first West Region tournament championship ever.
St. Mary’s has collected one milestone victory after another this season. Three more at the state tournament — which begins today in Minot — and this truly will be the Year of the Saints.
St. Mary’s has not been a traditionally strong volleyball team. With their three wins last weekend, the Saints nearly equaled their total number of West Region tournament victories (four) over the previous 15 seasons combined.
“It’s almost surreal,” St. Mary’s coach Amy Heuer said. “At the beginning of the season we had a simple goal — to make it to state. Now here we are going into state first place in the WDA. It’s more than anybody has imagined.”
With 11 seniors, expectations were relatively high for the Saints. They were picked to finish fourth in the West in the preseason coaches’ poll and clearly have been on the upswing: St. Mary’s won five matches in 2010, eight in 2011 and 16 in 2012.
But this year, St. Mary’s (23-9) has made a quantum leap forward. Their current eight-match winning streak includes two wins over Century, a team they hadn’t beaten since 2002; a win over Bismarck, which they also hadn’t beaten in 11 years; and the upset of Jamestown, which snapped a 25-match winning streak by the Blue Jays.
St. Mary’s has a senior-dominated core: hitters Mary Roller, Kaylyn Herold, Katelyn Schaffner, Ashley Wanner and McIntee; defensive specialists Ashley Kilzer and Caitlin Bakke; and setter Allie Reisenauer.
“We all clicked at the same time, and everything is just kind of flowing now,” said McIntee, a senior outside hitter. “We trust all of our teammates. We can just read each other. We know if you’re going to get that ball or you’re not, or who should be there and who shouldn’t be there.
“It is so much fun,” she said. “I can’t explain it, because we’ve been playing with each other since at least fourth grade, and now finally, we’re seniors this year, and we’re doing so well.”
The Jamestown match was a five-set classic. McIntee said there was no pressure since a state tournament berth was already clinched.
“It was more like a fun game. We already passed our expectations,” she said. “We just went in with a positive attitude, thinking, ‘If we win this, great, but we still did better than what we thought we would.’”
McIntee played a critical role in the final victory over Jamestown, delivering nine kills.
“Alex is a great blocker, but she has been kind of up and down with her hitting,” Heuer said. “But Jamestown was keying to the outside on Mary and Schaffner. That opened up the right side, and Alex really stepped up.”
McIntee said she knew her teammates were depending on her in that situation.
“I wasn’t expecting it, because Mary and Schaffner and Kaylyn, they’re always our strong hitters,” McIntee said. “They’re usually our go-to. ... I just realized, ‘I’ve got to do something here. I’ve got to put the ball on the floor.’ I just had to play smarter, find their holes — they didn’t have many. It was just the luck of it that it worked out that way.”
St. Mary’s opens up against Fargo South, the fourth seed from the East and a team the Saints have not met.
St. Mary’s has never finished better than sixth in its previous five state tournament appearances. Bettering that is one more milestone the seniors would like to reach.
“I just want to play without regrets,” McIntee said. “It’s kind of giving it all we have and leaving everything on the court.”
The Patriots have played in four of the last five state championship games, winning in 2008 and 2012.
This year Century (29-7) comes in as the third seed from the West, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots have any less confidence.
“This is really anybody’s ballgame,” co-coach Sara Bohrer said. “There are really eight solid teams this year. Everybody has had their up and down days. Nobody is unbeatable. It should be exciting.”
Century opens against Fargo Davies (24-8), a team the Patriots defeated 2-1 at the season-opening BHS-CHS Invitational.
“They’re a competitive team from the East. Their setter (Katelyn Olson) is a strong player and a strong leader,” Bohrer said.
Century has a trio of all-region players in Shay Bense, Jordyn Jossart and Katie Scherr. Bense and Jossart, Ali Hasche and Elise Bauman all played on last year’s championship team, which Bohrer says will help the Patriots.
“It gives our girls a boost of confidence,” Bohrer said. “They want to strive to be a part of a team that does that.”
The Demons (22-15) are the fourth seed from the West and open against East Region champion Fargo Shanley (29-2).
The teams have played twice already, Shanley won both, 3-0 at the BHS-CHS Invite and 2-1 at the Fargo Invitational.
“We’ve played them twice, and both times it’s been great games,” Bismarck coach Jessica Nichols said. “We’re just really excited to get to go up and play them again.
“They have great ball control, and they have a very strong middle,” she added. “If we can get our blocking going and make sure that as a team that we’re really talking about their strong players and what we need to do, we’ll be successful.”
Bismarck has three all-region players — McKenzie Kiefer, Morgan Miller and Natalee Todd, and Nichols feels like the Demons are peaking at the right time.
“We had a super-great game against Jamestown (in the region semifinals),” Nichols said. “If we can play that strong against Jamestown, I’m excited to see what we can do against other teams.”