Looking at the scoresheet, it appeared that North Branch’s third-straight Section 7AA championship win was much of the same as their previous matches during the 2019 section tournament – an easy victory. But as it is many times with sports, the scoresheet can be deceiving.

Although the Vikings dispensed of the Proctor Rails in just over an hour by scores of 25-21, 25-18, 25-23, North Branch came away from the match knowing they just went through a battle.

“Proctor was a nice team, and they put up a good fight defensively and offensively,” North Branch head coach Mike Selbitschka said.  “We had to earn that win.”

Right out of the gates, it became obvious that Proctor’s game plan was to try and take away as many opportunities as possible for senior Cianna Selbitschka. The Rails’ serves were consistently aimed away from the Vikings’ star player when she was in the backcourt, and when she rotated to in front of the net, she was frequently faced with double-team blocks.

That plan worked, but only to a certain extent as the Vikings’ team depth showed through, making it very hard for the Rails to strictly focus on their main target.

“My thought is that they knew that she was going to be a threat,” said Selbitschka. “However I don’t believe they knew how much of a threat the rest of the team really was.”

Junior setter Paige Sheehan deftly spread her assists throughout the rest of North Branch’s attackers, keeping the Rails guessing which direction the Vikings would be coming from. Outside hitter Haley Hadrava picked up nine kills for the night, with middle hitters Paige Peaslee (seven kills) and Reagan Irons (six kills) attacking from the middle. To top it off, Sheehan sprinkled in a few tip-kill attempts for good measure.

“We are finding many ways to attack and put pressure on our opponents,” said coach Selbitschka. “I believe this year we have more weapons that are a threat than ever before. We really work to keep teams guessing where the next attack will come from.”

That uncertainty gave Cianna enough breathing room to come up with kills at just the right times, which usually was when North Branch needed to stop a Proctor rally or to put a set away. Cianna finished with 16 kills, including three kills after Proctor took a 19-18 lead in the first set and a decisive kill to set up North Branch’s match point after Proctor had whittled a sizable lead down to 23-22.

At the same time, Proctor did throw a few offensive wrinkles at North Branch that forced the Vikings to play at their peak defensively. Specifically, Proctor’s top attacker Sam Pogatchnik’s left-handed spikes gave the Viking blockers some troubles. Pogatchnik would end up with 12 kills.

“She (Pogatchnik) was a great attacker, and we knew she would get some good kills,” coach Selbitschka said. “We talked about squaring up with her as she was very consistent on some of her hitting tendencies.”

Proctor was also able to be very precise with their attacks, frequently forcing North Branch to make defensive saves that took them out of their system.

“We continue to train, ‘Always Attack!’ They are a great group of girls that don’t say a whole lot on the court – they just make plays and look to stay calm,” said coach Selbitschka.

Vikings given #3 seed at state

Just as last season, the Class AA state tournament features an extremely loaded pool of talented teams the Vikings will have to navigate in order to repeat as state champions. Seven of the eight qualifying teams were ranked in the top 10 of the last QRF rankings. Despite being slated as #1 in the QRF, the Vikings were given the #3 seed by way of state tournament coaches voting.

“I am good with the #3 seed,” coach Selbitschka said. “The competition is going to be tough, top to bottom. It’s state, and it should be.”

North Branch will begin their state tournament at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 7, against unseeded Pequot Lakes, who will be making their first appearance at state since 1994. Win or lose, the Vikings will play at the same time on Friday, Nov. 8, in either the state semifinals (should they win) or the consolation round (should they lose) against either #2 seed Marshall or unseeded Belle Plaine.

Barring losses on both Thursday and Friday, the Vikings will play on Saturday, Nov. 9, in either the consolation championship at 11 a.m., the third place match at 1 p.m. or the championship match at 3 p.m. All of the matches are at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. They will also be streamed live at www.prepspotlight.tv.

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