ST. PAUL — Experience won out on Thursday as Cretin-Derham Hall rallied for a 3-2 victory over Stillwater to clinch at least a share of the Suburban East Conference championship.
The Raiders (8-0 SEC, 18-3) rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Stillwater 25-27, 22-25, 25-23, 25-16, 15-12 in a showdown of conference unbeatens. The Ponies (7-1, 16-6) can still earn a share of the league title, but would need a victory over East Ridge on Tuesday and a Cretin-Derham Hall loss at Mounds View.
Stillwater had not dropped a single set in its previous seven conference matches.
“It was a good match,” Ponies coach Jamie Suapaia said.
The Raiders, who also won the conference a year ago before qualifying for the state tournament, relied on that experience to pull off Thursday’s come-from-behind win.
“They have a lot of returners back and they have a lot of kids that were in that state tournament last year so they knew how to stay calm under pressure and we kind of freaked out when things didn’t go our way,” Suapaia said. “Cretin changed a few things up in the third game and we tried to stay where we are comfortable. They started putting pressure on us and we didn’t necessarily respond and push back. We decided to go into a shell and we weren’t swinging as much and tipping more and letting them control how we were going to play.”
Bri Horwath led a balanced Ponies attack with 16 kills while Stephanie Houle added 14 and Savannah Sprenger 13. Stephanie Dietrich contributed 12 kills, most during those successful periods when Stillwater was delivering more sets to the middles.
Susan Evans finished with 51 set assists and Maddie Brandon set the pace defensively with 52 digs.
“Susan did a good job of finding our middles and the middles did a great job of getting open and working hard,” Suapaia said. “Towards the last couple of games we got outside more and were more predictable.”
The first three games were each close and Stillwater led during Game 3, before the Raiders found success speeding up their outside sets, the coach suggested. Cretin-Derham Hall came back to win that game and won the fourth game with room to spare.
The Raiders also jumped out to an early three-point lead in the deciding fifth game, although Stillwater answered and actually led 6-5.
“Then they got up two or three points on us and against a good team like that you can’t give any easy points away and you can’t give them any space to work with,” Suapaia said. “Instead of being aggressive, we were soft and didn’t necessarily push them at the end, just getting the ball in instead of taking aggressive swings.”
And while a conference title appears improbable at this point, the Ponies are hoping to learn from Thursday’s setback in what marked the first time they have been challenged in the conference all season.
“It’s not necessarily what Cretin did well, but we what we need to do well,” Suapaia said. “We’re going to take a nice, hard look at ourselves and the things that we can improve on. It’s s learning experience and we told the girls that this wasn’t the most important win. I would have been nice to win a conference championship, but it’s not our ultimate goal and we have to make sure the next time we match up against Cretin or Hill-Murray and have our backs against the wall, we have to make sure we’re pushing and not getting pushed.”