By Paul Lecker
ATHENS – For the second straight match, the Stratford volleyball team found itself down after three sets and in a must-win situation.
And, for the second straight match, the Tigers were able to regroup and continue their season.
Stratford rallied from a 2-1 deficit to knock off Neenah St. Mary Catholic 3-2 in a WIAA Division 3 girls volleyball sectional final Oct. 28 at Athens High School. With the victory, the Tigers advance to the state tournament for the first time in program history.
Stratford won the match 23-25, 25-14, 17-25, 25-18, 15-9, to move on the 2017 WIAA State Girls Volleyball Tournament at Resch Center in Green Bay. Stratford will face Eau Claire Regis in a Division 3 semifinal Friday, Nov. 3, at 1 p.m. Waterloo and Lake Country Lutheran will play in the other semifinal, with the winners meeting for the state title on Saturday, Nov. 4, at 11:30 a.m.
“It’s so amazing,” Stratford senior Makayla Krall said. “I love being a part of a team like this because I love every single girl on my team. I’m so close with everyone, especially because I have a sister (McKenna) on the team. It’s amazing to be able to share this experience with her.”
Stratford found itself down 2-1 against Athens in the sectional semifinal on Thursday at Auburndale, and Tigers coach Brooke Kafka said the experience her team fought through in that match was a definite bonus, especially with all that was on the line.
“We knew coming in that this was going to be a tough game, what game isn’t when you get to this point of the season, and I couldn’t be more proud of my girls,” Kafka said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better way to prepare for this situation.”
Stratford struggled much of the time on offense during the first three sets.
St. Mary Catholic pulled ahead 21-17 with a run of four points in a row in Game 1 and held on with two kills from Abbi Thelen and another from Alyssa Rankin to finish off the 25-23 win.
Mazie Nagel, Stratford’s top hitter, found her groove in the second set, pounding home seven kills. Krall added five kills as well as the Tigers evened the match with a 25-14 win.
However, the Tigers’ offense fell silent again in the third set, managing just six kill points. A pair of kills from Megan Berg closed out a 25-17 win for the Zephyrs and put Stratford on life support.
“Some of our passes were getting there and we weren’t able to get the ball to our hitters,” Krall said. “We had to push Mazie out in order to get her to put the ball down because they were blocking her cross. They were triple-blocking the middle, so we had to find where the holes were.”
Leading 13-11, Stratford earned a sideout and ripped off three more points on kills from Brooke Peterson, Krall and Blaire Lindner to go up by six. An ace from Madisyn Daul finished off a 25-18 victory to even the match again and set up a fifth and final set for the sectional title.
Stratford’s offense continued to roll in Game 5. Nagel had three kills in a 9-3 run to start the game and the Tigers never looked back, closing out the match with a 15-9 win.
“I was waiting for them to play their game, and I hadn’t seen it,” Kafka said. “I said, ‘I want to see you play your game, I want to see you earn this, I want to see you be you. They finally showed.
“I said to them that we can’t make our defense work as hard as it’s working if we can’t run our offense. Our defense is strong, but our offense is even stronger, so I was glad that we finally pulled that out.”