Esko eases past Mora, on to state volleyball playIn volleyball, timeouts are common. The brief one-minute break allows time for a quick breather and a revised game plan, hoping to shift the match’s momentum – unless you’re Esko.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
GRAND RAPIDS – In volleyball, timeouts are common. The brief one-minute break allows time for a quick breather and a revised game plan, hoping to shift the match’s momentum – unless you’re Esko.
Coach Desiree DeLeon never needed to halt action, as she watched her Eskomos control Mora in a 25-18, 25-12, 25-19 Section 7AA volleyball championship win Saturday evening at Grand Rapids High School.
The win propelled Esko (26-4) to a second straight state tournament appearance – and third overall – where they’ll open play Thursday against four-time champ and top-ranked Marshall (27-4) at 5 p.m. at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. (Look online at www.pinejournal .com for the results of that game.)
“We just talked about trying to play consistent from the first whistle to the last,” said a surprised DeLeon when informed she didn’t take a single one of her six available timeouts Saturday. “We made some mistakes, but we just didn’t let it go three, four, five points to the other team.”
It was the opposite of Esko’s semifinal match against Hibbing last Wednesday, when – after taking the opening two games – the Eskomos barely hung on to their season by rallying for the last seven points in a five-game scare.
“I think they were a little mad about the game against Hibbing,” DeLeon said. “I think that motivated them tonight. They were ready. They wanted it.”
Unlike DeLeon, Mora Coach Lisa Gustafson burned all of her timeouts to stop the bleeding Saturday, but her Mustangs never got established facing Esko’s relentless momentum-controlling attack.
“I tried every tactic I had,” Gustafson said. “It didn’t work out.”
Playing in front of a raucous crowd, Esko never trailed by more than a point against Mora. Gustafson thought the Eskomos’ experience played a factor, noting she could tell they played in the same match last November.
“They have the familiarity, they went to state last year,” said Gustafson. “This is new territory for us. [Esko] was much more relaxed than we were. I thought maybe in that third game we could make that jump, we just didn’t.”
Gustafson was referring to a moment when her Mustangs climbed within two points, 16-14, of the Eskomos in the final game, but then Esko’s Stephanie Bandelin got a back-row kill, Amanda Belden followed with a block, and soon after a Mora hitting error and timeout, Esko’s Stephanie Miller recorded an ace to put things away.
“We promised that the third game wasn’t going to slip away,” said Miller, a senior setter who had 25 set assists. “We knew Mora wasn’t going to lie down and play dead for us, they were going to fight us ’til the end. We decided to fight back.”
“Being up the first two games gave us momentum,” added Bandelin, who along with Belden, led Esko with 13 and seven kills, respectively, in the win. “But we knew we had to push through it and persevere.”
And persevere they did. Now, having strung together seven straight wins, the confident Eskomos are making a return trip to St. Paul despite being somewhat overlooked entering the fall season.
“We really wanted to get there again,” said outside hitter Megan Bergstedt, one of six returning seniors from last year’s historic team. “We usually struggle in the third game, but we just got pumped up and killed them in three games. We just did what we needed to do to get back to state.”
“State has been our goal all year,” added Miller, who played a reserve role on last season’s state tournament squad. “In the beginning of the year, everyone was saying Esko’s the underdogs. No one knew what to expect, but once we started playing we were the team to beat. Apparently, it worked out.”
DeLeon never second-guessed her girls’ chances.
“Even last year, I felt that we would be back in the same position because I knew who I had left,” said DeLeon, who is making her fifth state appearance along with taking former Cook High School three times in four years before coming to Esko.
Much like their coach, the Eskomos have another year of experience heading on to the state’s brightest stage. Winless there a year ago, improvement is key for the Eskomos.
DeLeon is keeping the game plan simple.
“Hopefully there will be less nerves,” she said, “but we just need to play good, tough volleyball. That’s all I can ask them to do is play their best volleyball.”
“That’s all we can hope for,” added Miller, “just do our best.”
Timeouts or not.