Fourth-seeded going into the sections, the New Life Academy Eagles ended the season fifth at state.
Playing in their first Minnesota State High School girls volleyball state tournament, the Eagles capped a remarkable post-season run with a 3-1 victory in the Class A consolation championship game Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Xcel Energy Center.
The Eagles dropped Cook County 25-19, 27-25, 25-22 to finish a season which defied all expectations, except perhaps their own.
"It's been a thrill," said New Life coach Wally Bomgren. "I think the expectations around us were a little lower with the teams we've played, the teams in our conference that knew we'd lost so many seniors in a couple years.
"Did we overachieve? I'm not sure," Bomgren continued. "I think they obviously showed they can play at this level throughout the year. It was a great thrill for me to be part of this."
Remarkably, the Eagles played some of their best volleyball of the season without one of their key players. Eighth-grade sensation Makenzie Roettger missed most of the consolation semifinals and all of the championship game with a back ailment. Yet the Eagles found a way to make up for her absence.
Nadia Nelson — the team's lone senior — junior Kate Rogers and sophomore Elli Wiertsema combined to overpower the Cook County defenders. The Eagles got quality play from sophomore Abbie Swenson, who stepped in to take Roettger's place in the lineup.
"We had some time at the end of the year to get her ready," Bomgren said of Swenson. "She was going to be our first off the bench whether a left-side hitter got hurt or a middle got hurt or a right-side hitter got hurt. She was going to have to come in because we don't have a real big bench. I have to hand it to her to have to come into the middle where she's only played a little bit and really none this year. And we hardly noticed she was there because she just fit in just fine."
"It just felt like the same," said Wiertsema. "But we kept supporting her (Swenson) because it's hard to jump in but she did an amazing job. We didn't have to adjust anything."
Wiertsema led New Life with 16 kills and added 13 defensive digs. Nelson had 13 kills and nine digs. Rogers finished with nine kills and seven digs.
New Life also got its usual superb setting from junior Bethany Breiholz (34 assists) and standout defense from libero sophomore Hannah George (a whopping 59 digs).
The Eagles finished 20-14 on the season. New Life went 4-0 in Section 4A play, going 12-0 in the process. In the state tournament, the Eagles lost only to second-seeded Minneota.
Cook County ended at 23-7.
New Life started strongly, breaking away from a 12-all tie to take an 18-12 lead before winning the first set. The second set was tighter, with the two teams tied 10 times before Wiertsema powered three straight kills to lift the Eagles to a two-point win.
The third set was a wild one. New Life took a 14-7 lead and seemed ready to cruise to the win. Instead, Cook County battled back with 10 straight points to tie the match at 20-all.
"After we were up by 10 and then we let them go on a 10-0 run, I, myself, kind of got a little anxious but I knew from that second set where we came over them 27-25 that we could do anything, that we could push at any moment. I don't know exactly at what point it was but I think that we had complete confidence the whole way through."
A service ace by Abbie Swenson and kills by Wiertsema and Nelson finally ended the drama. Nelson, fittingly, ended her high school volleyball career with the game-winning point.
"It feels good, said Nelson. "This is the best case scenario, really.
"This one (team) certainly was filled with better chemistry, I'd say" Nelson added."All these girls love each other and weren't afraid to show it during the season. Every game was fun."
With everyone returning next season except for Nelson, expectations for the Eagles next fall are likely to be sky high.
"I think that we're just going to go into the season like we did," said Wiertsema. "Just having fun and playing for the one above and just work our butts off and see where it can get us."