Aug. 27—MARSHALL — It was a baptism by fire for the first match of the Willmar Cardinals volleyball team's 2021 season.
The Cardinals entered the season ranked No. 3 in Class AAA in the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Assocation's preseason poll.
But across the court was the top-ranked team in Class AAA: the Marshall Tigers.
"It was good for us to play them. They are a great team (and) a great program," said Leah Ruter following her first match as the Cardinals' head coach.
"It's hard to have Marshall as a first game just because we've only practiced for a week or two," said Willmar senior middle blocker Mackenzie Knofczynski. "It gives us an idea that in practice, this is what we can build up to. Then when section time does come, we will be ready to hit those teams hard."
In an early season test between top teams in Section 2AAA, Marshall successfully defended its home court with a three-set victory, 25-22, 25-13, 25-21.
"This was a big match (and) it's not a typical first match," said Tigers head coach Dan Westby. "You have two good teams slugging it out. We feel fortunate to come out on top. This is a good team we played tonight. They got a lot of firepower offensively. We felt like defensively, we had to be at our best."
Early on, it was the Tigers dealing the blows as they built a 12-5 first-set lead after a kill by Lauren Dirkes. Willmar managed to come back and tie the set at 17-all before Marshall scored the next four points. The Cardinals made one last run with Marshall looking for set point, highlighted by two straight Knofczynski ace serves. But, the Tigers eventually locked up the first set with a block.
Combined with its strong back-row play, Marshall also had seven ace blocks. Leah Jones, Brooke Andries and Taylor Ariasola each had two. Caitlyn Christenson chipped in with a team-high eight digs.
"We were out of system a lot," Knofczynski said. "We got to work on working out of system because they hit everywhere and a lot of our passes were off. Our hitters had to adjust hitting off the net."
Marshall's focus was slowing down Willmar's 6-foot-4 outside hitter Sydney Schnichels, who finished the night with six kills on 30 attacks.
"We felt like, both blocking and defending, we needed to know where Schnichels was in both the front row and back row," said Westby, a 1978 Danube HIgh School graduate who is in the MVCA Hall of Fame. "She can hurt you just about everywhere. We had to be mindful of where she was at all times. I thought for the most part our kids did a good job of that."
Willmar still had plenty of fight left in the third set as they got as close as 22-21 before the Tigers scored the next four to claim the set and the match.
The Cardinals' top hitter was Knofczynski, who had eight kills.
"You have to just hit it and hope they don't dig it," Knofczynski said with a laugh.
Ruter added, "Lydia (Larson, Willmar's setter) did a great job keeping Kenzie involved," Ruter said. "When we run that quick tempo, that's going to lead to a lot of blocks. And Kenzie's good at hitting either side and being aggressive. She was on time, which worked out well."
Both teams left the court expecting to see each other again at some point in the postseason.
"I would be remiss if I didn't think that Willmar will be a team to reckon with down the stretch," said Westby.
On Saturday, the Cardinals will play in a tournament in Hopkins. Then on Tuesday, they begin Central Lakes Conference play at Sauk Rapids.
Willmar (0-1) 22 13 21
Marshall (1-0) 25 25 25
Serving (aces): Sydney Schnichels 1, Mackenzie Knofczynski 2, Hannah Stark 2 ... Set assists: Lydia Larson 19 ... Hitting (kills): Marissa Rosen 6, Larson 2, Schnichels 6, Knofczynski 8 ... Blocking (aces): Rosen 2, Larson 1, Schnichels 1, Bella Mulder 1 ... Digs (5 or more): Allie Rosendahl 5, Rosen 6, Stark 5
Serving (aces): Taylor Ariasola 3, Ashleigh Steinbach 2, Cassie Hoover 2 ... Set assists: Maysa Gillingham 28, Caitlyn Christenson 1, Ariasola 1 ... Hitting (kills): Leah Jones 9, Brooke Andries 7, Tessa Gannott 3 ... Blocking (aces): Jones 2, Andries 2, Ariasola 2, Abby Panka 1 ... Digs (5 or more): Christenson 8, Hoover 7, Jones 6