Being the defending state champions is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the previous experience is invaluable, especially when going up against less-experienced teams. But on the other hand, all eyes are on you as you are now the hunted as teams attempt to knock you off your throne.
The North Branch Viking volleyball team experienced both sides of that sword during their 2019 state tournament run, which ended with North Branch taking home the runner-up trophy for the second time in the last three years.
For the opening round of the tournament on Thursday, Nov. 7 at Xcel Energy Center, the #3 seeded Vikings faced Pequot Lakes – a team who was admittedly in the “just happy to be there” category after qualifying for the team’s first state tournament berth since 1994.
“There was somewhat a ‘we haven’t been here in 25 years,’ so it was a realization of how big of a stage we were on,” said Pequot Lakes head coach Chris Ganley after North Branch dispensed of her team 3-0.
This was obviously the opposite attitude of the defending champion Vikings.
“I came in here today, it was a little nerve-wracking at first,” Viking outside hitter Cianna Selbitschka said. “But then we started playing, I was like, ‘I’ve done this before; I just have to play my game.’”
What was somewhat unfamiliar for the Vikings was how fast they were able to walk off the Xcel Energy Center court. Their 25-20, 25-11, 25-18 sweep was in stark contrast to last season’s three five-set marathons.
“It feels different,” said head coach Mike Selbitschka. “But it’s a good feeling. I think we will have a little more legs in us and a little more energy.”
In the match, Pequot Lakes just didn’t have an answer for Cianna, who was a finalist for the Minnesota Ms. Baden Volleyball award. The senior racked up 21 kills with an almost unheard-of
successful kill percentage of 48.6%.
“We don’t see North Branch during the season,” said Ganley. “So you come in and hear she is a Ms. Baden finalist, and you just have to learn as you go. We enjoyed playing her. It’s no wonder she is a Ms. Baden finalist.”
Besides Cianna, the Patriots also struggled against North Branch’s potent serve. To start the second set, the Vikings rattled off 13-straight points, in large part due to the serving of Kylie Kline.
“Our serve was consistent and tough,” coach Selbitschka said of the second set. “It completely kept them (Pequot Lakes) out of system.”
That run was the beginning of the end of any hopes the Patriots had of pulling off the upset of the century. North Branch cruised to the 25-11 win and followed that up with a smooth 25-18 third-set win, capped off by a 15-7 scoring run after Pequot Lakes took a brief 11-10 lead.
The following night, it appeared that it might be more of the same as the Vikings found themselves going against unseeded Belle Plaine, who had upset #2 seed Marshall during the quarterfinals. It turned out, however, that North Branch would find themselves back on more familiar grounds, battling the Tigers in another five-set thriller before picking up the 3-2 win.
North Branch would jump out to the lead in the match by winning both the first and third sets, winning 25-19 and 25-20, but Belle Plaine responded by taking the second and fourth sets 25-18 and 25-23. The Vikings closed it out by jumping out to a 8-2 lead in the fifth set before holding off a Tiger rally for a 15-9 win.
The Tigers gave the Vikings a good dose of their own medicine during the game, relying on a strong defense and by attempting to keep North Branch away from getting into their offensive system.
“Belle Plaine was one of the best digging teams I’ve seen in a very long time,” coach Selbitschka said. “We had some great attacks, and they put it up and were back in system, and that’s something we have not dealt with normally. They did not allow us any extra points. We had to earn every single point.”
Cianna had another huge night, picking up 28 kills on 84 attempts, with many of those coming from the back row as Belle Plaine was successful in limiting the other Viking attackers, with the only exception being sophomore Paige Peaslee, who picked up 15 kills in the middle despite the tough Tiger defense.
Once the final ball landed in the Vikings’ favor, thoughts were immediately to the state championship match and defending their crown against #1 seed Stewertville.
“It’s going to be a great match,” said coach Selbitschka. “It’s not going to come easy. I would say it will be more difficult than what we just faced, so we better tie our shoes tight and be ready to battle.”
Coach Selbitschka’s statement was prophetic as Stewartville and North Branch went after each other on Saturday, Nov. 9 in yet another five-set classic, with the top-seed Tigers coming out on top 3-2.
North Branch took control early, taking the first set 25-20 by keeping the Tigers on their heels. After that, however, it was Stewartville who would regroup and catch the Vikings off-guard by switching up their attacks to more tips than power kill attempts. Stewartville would win the second and third sets by scores of 25-19 and 25-16, giving North Branch their first non-fifth set “do-or-die” situation.
North Branch would hang on in the fourth set, squeaking out a 25-23 win. But the Vikings couldn’t keep up that momentum one last time, falling in the fifth set 15-12.
“I think they saw we were playing a little deeper defense, and we saw a lot of tips that were dropping in,” coach Selbitschka said. “We needed to have more offensive pressure to keep them out of system, but we lacked the efficiency to really put that pressure on and they did a better job of digging.
“You’ve seen us go five games in the state tournament before, and we have a lot of grit and these girls gave it everything they’ve got,” continued coach Selbitschka. “It was one of the best battles this team have ever had.”
For the match, Cianna had another 33 kills, with Peaslee adding to her strong tournament stats another nine kills.
Despite the disappointing ending of the season, the Vikings agreed that they have had quite the run by reaching the championship match three-straight seasons, with last year’s culminating with the school’s first team state championship since the 1960s.
“Knowing that I ended my high school volleyball career with two second places and a state championship is a great accomplishment,” Cianna Selbitschka said. “I don’t take any of that for granted.”
“I think these last three years have been really awesome,” added senior Macy Brodin, who can also add playing in a state softball championship game to her list of accomplishments. “I don’t think there is anything I would change.”
Three make All-Tournament team
Cianna Selbitschka’s 82 kills made her an obvious choice for selection to the All-Tournament team. She was joined in that honor by teammates Paige Sheehan, who amassed 129 assists and middle hitter Paige Peasley, who was second on the team with 32 kills.
Editor's note: The version of this story in the physical edition of the Chisago County Star inadvertently listed the North Branch selections for the 2018 All-Tournament team instead of the 2019 All-Tournament team. This version of the story has been edited to list the correct names.