By PATRICK SLACK
Royalton’s postseason couldn’t have gotten off to a much worse start.
Playing in front of a home crowd against a winless opponent in Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City (ACGC), the Royals dropped the first set.
Since then, it couldn’t be much better.
After bouncing back to take down ACGC in four sets, the Royals avenged regular-season losses to both Kimball Area and Browerville to earn a spot in the Sub-Section 5A South championship.
“I knew they were capable during the regular season to defeat good teams like Kimball and Browerville, but they just didn’t always play this relentless,” Royalton head coach Trisha Spencer said. “We lost a valuable starter, Hayley Gottwalt, due to injury just prior to the postseason and the team decided they would overcome an obstacle instead of giving up.
“We were lucky to have sophomore Kayla Eli as a solid backup throughout the season,” she said. “She always gave 100 percent, never questioned any position or playing time and kept a great attitude throughout. She was ready to step up when we needed her. Right now, these girls are playing like they have nothing to lose, because, well, they don’t.”
The third-seeded Royals’ run started by shaking off the sixth seed in its sub-section pod, ACGC, by a score of 23-25, 25-13, 25-19, 25-21, Oct. 24.
Senior Jenna Skajewski posted 18 digs and junior Abby Duevel had 11 to anchor the defense, with Duevel also hitting 11 kills.
Senior Emily Fussy led the Royals with 14 kills, while junior Haley Olson produced a stellar all-around night with 30 set assists, eight digs, six service aces and five kills.
In a rematch from its home opener nearly two months prior, Royalton traveled to second-seeded Kimball Area to try to pay back its earlier five-set defeat, Oct. 25.
The match started on an intense note and didn’t let up, with Royalton squeezing out a 26-24, 25-21, 23-25, 25-21 victory.
Fussy was the top hitter again for Royalton, planting 16 kills and making 13 digs, followed closely by senior Katelyn Kasella with 12 kills and 11 digs.
Duevel posted seven kills, freshman Brandi Kloss had five and Eli registered three kills and 14 digs, with junior Abbey Klisch stepping in with a trio of big kills in her varsity debut.
Olson distributed 43 assists to go with five kills and five aces and Skajewski covered the back row adeptly with 29 digs.
The victory over Kimball set up another showdown with Browerville, which defeated Royalton twice during the regular season.
It appeared that would change early on, as the Royals sprinted to a two-set lead with wins of 25-13 and 25-17.
Browerville didn’t go quietly, though, taking the next two sets 25-21 and 25-19, before the Royals answered with a nail-biting 16-14 triumph in the decisive fifth set to advance.
“Our level of focus, along with our determination to beat a higher-ranked team that already defeated us this season helped us regroup and pull off the win,” Fussy said. “We were surprised when Browerville came out swinging harder and serving better, but our desire to win kept us from playing scared.
“During the final set we were all aware that this could be our final game, so we gave 100 percent and trusted our teammates would be there to back us up.”
Kasella and Fussy each had 13 kills, Duevel had eight and Olson passed out 40 set assists.
Skajewski had 21 digs and provided two clutch aces, with Kloss picking up four kills and three blocks.
“Our level of play has definitely risen as we moved into the playoffs,” Kasella said. “Overcoming the obstacle of losing a starter made us a stronger team. We had to push ourselves harder than ever before if we wanted to succeed.
“And since we are considered the underdogs, we know we have nothing to lose, so the nerves vanish when we step on the court and we just play with all we’ve got,” she said.
With a record of 17-10-1 heading into the sub-section finals against Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, scheduled to be played Thursday, Royalton had already exceeded the number of wins it achieved in the past three years combined (14).
“It’s been a work in progress for the past couple years,” Spencer said. “My goal as the head coach is to give plenty of opportunities for players to grow and this group of girls chose to put in extra time since they were in junior high. That dedication is evident on the court and also drives the girls to finish the season with pride.”
Upsala sweeps Swanville, falls in second round
Junior Danica Cheney slammed 15 kills and junior Sara Herzog dug out 22 shots to go with five aces as Upsala swept visiting Swanville 25-17, 25-16, 25-17 in the opening round of the Section 5A tournament, Oct. 24.
Junior Brooke Westrich was the next leading hitter for the Cardinals with 12 kills, followed by junior Mariah Prokott (5) and freshman Katlin Welinski (3).
Junior Kristin Wuebkers distributed 29 set assists and sophomore Kiley Smieja finished with three service aces.
After splitting a pair of regular-season match-ups, Browerville topped visiting Upsala in the sub-section quarterfinals 25-21, 25-15, 25-16, Oct. 25.
Cheney led the Cardinals again with 13 kills and 10 digs, with Wuebkers posting 21 set assists and 13 digs.
Westrich also reached double digits with 10 kills and 11 digs, with Welinski registering four kills and Herzog collecting 14 digs.
Upsala finished the season with a record of 13-18-1.
The Cardinals did not have any seniors on this year’s roster.
Swanville finished the season with a record of 6-20-1.
Seniors on this year’s roster for the Bulldogs included Amanda Rieffer, Danielle Sutton, Ashley Cook, Nikki Primus, Bethany Schmitz and Ashley Maciej.