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High School Volleyball: Tigers believe they will be factor at state

Pine River-Backus’ Bailey Wynn (4) hits the ball over the net Thursday against Rush City during the North Subsection 5-1A championship match at Little Falls. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Pine River-Backus’ Gabby Rainwater (3) hits the ball over the net Thursday against Rush City during the North Subsection 5-1A championship match at Little Falls. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

Despite a challenging first-round draw, the Pine River-Backus Tigers are headed to the Class 1A state tournament with an attitude of, "We Believe."

The unseeded Tigers face the third-seeded and perennial tournament participant Bethlehem Academy Cardinals in the quarterfinals of the 1A tournament at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

PR-B is making just its third appearance in program history and first since 2005. After starting the season 3-5, the Tigers caught fire, winning 21 of their last 22 games. Their only setback in that stretch was a 2-0 loss to Mabel-Canton in the opening game of the Brainerd tournament Oct. 14.

Faribault's Bethlehem Academy is making its 13th appearance in 16 years, most recently in 2015. The Cards have made it to the finals in all 12 of their previous appearances, winning seven titles and finishing second five times.

The Academy comes into this year's 1A tournament 16-14, but don't let that record fool you. Of the 14 losses, 11 came against teams ranked in the top 10 in 3A and 2A, including the top three teams in 3A.

"We put a lot of work together in several off-seasons," said Josh Hirschey, in his fourth year as the PR-B head coach. "We are ready to play and believe that we will be a factor down there.

"We've seen all the southern powers in the summer tournaments and we've played with a lot of them. We didn't beat a lot of them, but we went to three games with a lot of them and we believe we can do it."

Despite their opponent's pedigree and not having a single senior on the PR-B squad, Hirschey said he did not expect the Tigers to be intimidated by the Cardinals.

"We didn't play them, but we did see them at the Star of the North (Games) and places like that," he said. "They're rock solid, no question. We definitely respect them and know what they are all about.

"But in those summer tournaments we've seen so many good teams, a lot of teams in double-A and triple-A that are going to be playing there this weekend, too. I think we have played against teams that are bigger and maybe hit harder than them, so I don't think intimidation will be a factor."

Throughout the latter part of the season and playoffs, Tiger fans have filled the stands displaying posters and chanting "We Believe," which has quickly became the rallying cry for this team.

"Actually, we didn't come up with that," middle hitter Bailey Wynn said. "Our moms did, and they had our graphics teacher make a whole bunch of posters and signs. That was definitely all them and we would not be here without it. They made us believe and we are very grateful for that."

"I don't know how it started," said Hirschey. "I think I was yelling at the kids one night in practice, 'You gotta believe.' A couple of moms happened to be at practice and I think it caught on from there. It has helped us a lot, no question."

Junior middle hitters Alyssa Semmler and Wynn key the PR-B offensive attack. Semmler leads the team in kills (386) and blocks (109), while Wynn leads in ace serves (37) and digs (326). Wynn is second in kills (297) and blocks (74).

Freshman Riley Hirschey fills the setter position and has posted 777 set assists along with 28 ace serves, 28 kills and 27 blocks. Outside hitter Gabby Rainwater has contributed 195 kills and 313 digs. The Tigers' other outside hitter, sophomore Anna Felthous, has pounded 135 kills with 24 blocks.

Freshman Jaime Johnson rounds out the starting lineup with 71 kills and 43

blocks from the right side. Libero Emma Barchus is third on the team with 297 digs. Olivia Adkins and Ellie Smith are among the first players off the bench.

Hirschey said toughness has been one of the team's strengths.

"Especially in the last couple weeks," he said. "They have a will and a toughness

that this was going to happen. There's been a different demeanor about them the last few weeks.

"Overall, they're flexible. We can move kids around and even in the back row we have options. That's been a big factor, too. We've got kids off the bench that know their role, too, maybe they just serve or whatever the case, but they sure do a good job in their roles.

"I think they're ready. You can't be sure how they're going to handle the environment until they actually get out there, but we've played on a lot college floors the last couple off-seasons. They want to go and play and show people that they can play."