By PATRICK SLACK
With their seasons on the line, Upsala and Sebeka went back-and-forth in Tuesday’s fiercely competitive Section 5A quarterfinal showdown in Long Prairie.
After trading the first four sets, Upsala rallied from an 11-7 deficit in the decisive fifth to advance with a 25-19, 18-25, 25-15, 23-25, 15-13 triumph.
The Cardinals appeared as if they may have an easy time of it in the early stages of the match, controlling the first set from start to finish.
Sebeka regrouped in the second set, though, never trailing after going ahead 9-8 to even the match at a set apiece.
Back on the side it cruised through the first set on, Upsala never trailed in the third, pulling away on a six-point serving stretch by sophomore Brooke Westrich after Sebeka had closed the gap to 16-13, moving a set away from advancing.
Sebeka once again refused to go away quietly, as the fourth set turned into a stretch of extended rallies.
Sebeka seized an early 9-5 advantage, only for Upsala to rattle off seven points in a row to go ahead 12-9.
Coming out of a timeout, Sebeka answered with the following six to reclaim a 15-12 edge, before the set tightened even further.
The Cardinals broke an 18-18 deadlock on a kill by senior Aimee Pelzer and moved ahead 22-18 before Sebeka once again drew even at 22-22.
Upsala took the next point to close within two points of the match, but Sebeka swept the final three points to force a fifth and decisive set.
“I told the girls in the fifth set that this was our game to win,” Upsala head coach Leah Merten said. “I told them communication and defense were the keys to winning game five and to give it everything they had left. I also told them to play to win, meaning don’t back down and play safe, go for the kill and put the ball away.”
Upsala senior Makenna Peterson slammed a kill to give the Cardinals the first point, only for Sebeka to take the next three and go ahead 3-1.
A service ace by Westrich put Upsala ahead 4-3 and a kill by Pelzer made it 5-4, but Sebeka took seven of the next nine points to seize a commanding 11-7 advantage.
“When we were down 11-7, I was praying we would come back,” Merten said. “I knew we could come back, but we just needed to settle down and pass the ball consistently. I called a time out and told them to relax and to play to win, keep their serves in and to go for every ball.”
It was the Cardinals’ turn to rally, however, taking the next two points to narrow the gap to 11-9 and force a Sebeka timeout.
With sophomore Danica Cheney serving, Pelzer planted a pair of kills to knot the score at 11-11 and Peterson delivered a kill to give Upsala a 12-11 lead.
Pelzer and senior Emma Guthrie followed with kills to put Upsala on the brink of victory at 14-11, but Sebeka took the next two points to make it 14-13.
With the threat of Sebeka tying the score looming, Peterson came through with a clutch kill, closing out the victory and propelling Upsala into the Sub-Section 5A West finals.
“The team was so excited to have the come back win,” Merten said. “The reason we won was because we had everyone on the floor working toward the same goal. They are so excited to be playing BBE. I’m confident it will be another good game.”
Pelzer overpowered Sebeka’s blockers with 26 kills, with Herzog slamming 12 and Peterson recording 10.
Cheney had 28 set assists and Pelzer dished out 19 to set up the Upsala offense, with Pelzer also posting a team-high 33 digs.
Upsala will now take on ninth-ranked Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa (BBE) for a spot in the Section 5A finals, Thursday at 6 p.m. in Pierz.
BBE eliminated Upsala from last year’s playoffs and advanced with a 25-14, 25-20, 25-8 over Bertha-Hewitt.
The section championship is scheduled to take place Saturday at 7 p.m. in Pierz.
Upsala 3, Sebeka 2
Upsala 25 18 25 23 15 – 3
Sebeka 19 25 15 25 13 – 2
Upsala—Kills: Aimee Pelzer, 26; Tracy Herzog, 12; Makenna Peterson, 10; Danica Cheney, 7. Set Assists: Cheney, 28; Pelzer, 19. Digs: Pelzer, 33; Cheney, 18; Herzog, 14; Peterson, 11. Blocks: Herzog, 5; Peterson, 4.