L/E/M edges out North Star in 5 for 6th straight regional title, advance to state tournament
North Star and L/E/M know each other all too well. They both know who to look out for, what each team is going to bring to the floor, and each other's strengths and weaknesses.
In a game where both teams know what to expect from each side of the net, it's the unexpected element, that may put one team in an uncomfortable situation, that acts as the breaking point.
The Bearcats had an answer for the Cardinals heavy hitters, but it's L/E/M's change upon the attack that games them the slightest of edges. Forced into a fifth set for the first time in almost a month, No. 1 Langdon/Edmore/Munich (20-2) adjusted to No. 2 North Star's (13-4) attack to edge out the Bearcats 3-2 (25-18, 20-25, 25-16, 22-25, 15-8) for its sixth straight regional title to punch it's ticket to the NDHSAA Class B State Tournament next week in Fargo.
"I give our girls a lot of credit for making adjustments," Cardinals head coach Rich Olson said. "They battled us, and we knew they were going to, and our girl mixed in some off-speed shots that were huge. I told them we can't be blasting if they're going to be back there and we needed to mix up our shot selection. Throughout the night we did a good job of that."
The diversification of shots showed up big in the fifth set for the Cardinals as they cruised to a 15-8 set win in the final set and won the third set by nine points, but North Star forced L/E/M to put thought into almost every shot they had placed. The Bearcats found ways to limit senior middle hitter and Region 4 Senior Player of the Year Lexis Olson and junior outside hitter Morgan Freije. However, the duo began to put more strategy into their shots and they began to fall.
Lexis Olson would finish with a team-high 20 kills and add 23 digs while Freije would shine on the defensive end with a team-high 30 digs, complemented by eight kills.
"We definitely had to tip off-speed a little more," Lexis Olson said. "We had to be smart with where we placed them because they run the same kind of defense we do and we should know where they're going to tip. I wish we could've hit it more, but we placed them really well and we got them down."
As the Cardinals found their edge off of mixing up shots, the Bearcats continued to roll off their captain junior middle blocker Danielle Hagler, who picked up 26 kills and 34 digs in the finish. Her all-around effort has challenged teams around the region throughout the season and held down the Bearcats spot at the top.
North Star has been working to move the ball off of Hagler and to other options around her when she is not available. The Bearcats not only benefited off of Hagler's performance but saw a full-court effort from seniors middle blocker Mackenzie Gleason and outside hitter Sydney Staus, and junior setter Lindsey Nyhagen.
Gleason had the second-largest killing tally for the Bearcats with 12 kills while racking up 20 digs. Staus would finish with 12 digs and three kills. Nyhagen would be a major playmaking force on the back and front rows for North Star as she dished out 21 assists on the front row and collected 10 digs on the back row.
"We gave it more of an effort this time," Bearcats head coach Aubree Page said. "We made some adjustments when they had some tips coming at us. I think we just wanted it more this time and gave it more effort."
The effort led to a strong offensive flow in sets two and four for the Bearcats, allowing them to build leads and hold off Cardinal comebacks. In their last game against the Cardinals, the Bearcats built leads that would shrink and disappear, but Saturday's game saw North Star turn its leads into wins.
"We had a lot of energy and our passing was just spot on," Hagler said. "When we get our passing spot on our sets and kills come right away. I think that's what beat us in the other seats is our passing and defense."
At the same time, Lexis Olson said that she noticed the Cardinals' passing come together in the final set as well, getting a boost from freshman outside hitter Cora Badding, who finished with 11 kills and a handful of which came in the fifth set. Junior setter Morgan Thielbar also gave the Cardinals lift, taking over freshman setter Jalynn Swanson's role who did not play, collecting 47 assists for L/E/M.
"We just got smart, started using tip shots, and started using the arsenal that we have," Rich Olson said. "Our power game is great and we have some weapons we can go to, but we also have some players that are smart and can see the floor well. Just mixing it up was huge for us."
Saturday's win was the Cardinals' sixth straight regional championship and keeps their hopes alive to repeat as Class B state champions. L/E/M has dominated its schedule this season, with only two losses to No. 2 Thompson and Carrington. The Cardinals swept every regional regular-season game this season and knocked off the likes of Thompson, Our Redeemers, Grafton, and Rugby, two of which will be playing in the state tournament.
These past six years have been dominated by the Cardinals not just in Region 4, but in North Dakota. Olson said it starts with girls who show commitment to work hard within the program.
"We've had a lot of kids over the years who have set the tone and just shown the younger kids how much hard work pays off," Rich Olson said. "They just feed off each other. The young ones on the bench who aren't getting in the game envision themselves out on that floor next year or the year after. I've been blessed to have a lot of hard-working kids."
For North Star, this is the most they've challenged L/E/M for the Region crown since 2018, falling to the Cardinals 3-1. Saturday's finish was an exciting finish for the senior-heavy Bearcats as they graduate Gleason, Staus, McKenzie Peters, Jessica Bertsch, Taylor Berg, and Kinzley Knutson. However, their team captain still has a year left with North Star and is even hungrier after the loss.
"I know we can do anything," Hagler said. "I'm already ready for next year. We just need to keep working in the offseason. We're going to miss our seniors, but we're just going to need to step up and work hard."
While losing a larger amount of players, the Bearcats will still be returning key players in Hagler, Nyhagen, and junior Gracie Miller, but there is still a step up expected by North Star's younger core, on varsity and junior varsity.
"We're going to work hard with our younger girls in the offseason," Page said. "The season always goes well. We play teams that aren't quite as advanced, but we usually do pretty well throughout the season and the last game of the season against the [L/E/M] is our toughest challenge. It helped us that we played New Rockford before this because they're a good team too and that gave us some motivation."
L/E/M moves on to the FargoDome on Thursday, facing Kenmare in the quarterfinals. After a 3-3 start, the Honkers won 13 straight to clinch the Region 8 title over Divide County. On the Cardinals side of the bracket is No. 2 Thompson, who've they played twice this season, and Flasher, who defeated Wilton/Wing for the Region 5 crown.
The Cardinals have been to the state stage multiple times and according to Lexis Olson, the key is maintaining strong team chemistry and focusing on one opponent at a time.
"I always tell my teammates that we have to keep each other together and have good chemistry. It's so important to play as a team." Lexis Olson said. "At this point, we just have to have good chemistry and I think we'll play well in the state tournament."
Coming into the season, there was some doubt that L/E/M was going to be the power it was in 2019 as they would lose Callie Ronningen to seniority. However, while the Cardinals did lose a weapon, they continue to hold key pieces from the 2019 State Champion squad and have a chance to reach the top once again.
"They knew we still have key members from last year's state championship team that were going to be back on the court," Rich Olson said. "There were areas of the game where we were a little unsure who were going to fill those roles on the team, but we knew we had four of our main five hitters back from last year.
"That was a challenge for our girls. The challenge for them was we want to prove that we can do it again, even losing such great seniors. That was part of their motivation."
Region 4 Championship: L/E/M vs. North Star box score
L/E/M - 25, 20, 25, 22, 15 - 3
North Star - 18, 25, 16, 25, 8 - 2
Leaders: Kills - LEM: Lexis Olson (20), NS: Danielle Hagler (26), Digs - LEM: Morgan Freije (30), NS: Danielle Hagler (34), Assists - LEM: Morgan Thielbar (47), NS: Lindsey Nyhagen (21), Blocks - LEM: Lexis Olson (6), NS: Danielle Hagler (5), Aces - LEM: Morgan Freije (5), NS: five players with one
Region 4 Senior Player of the Year: Lexis Olson, LEM
Region 4 Coach of the Year: Jenna Hudson, Rolla
Region 4 runner-up: North Star Bearcats
Region 4 champion: Langdon/Edmore/Munich Cardinals