The Centennial volleyball team has played in Apple Valley’s early-season invitational in each of coach Jackie Rehbein-Manthey’s 17 seasons, and this year the Cougars made a breakthrough.

“This is the first time we’ve gotten to the finals,” said the coach, beaming, after her team beat Stewartville in the Aerie Challenge semifinals Saturday. “We have played Stewartville and Concordia Academy several times and never beat either of them before.”

The Cougars (7-2) won two nail-biters in pool play Friday, then tripped Class AA’s top-ranked Stewartville 25-20, 26-24 in the semifinals Saturday, pitting them against Concordia Academy, ranked No. 4 in Class 2A, in the finals.

The first set was a marathon with Concordia Academy prevailing 31-29 after the Cougars twice were serving with a chance to win. The Beacons, a perennial power (two state titles, three runner-up finishes, including last year) controlled game two 25-17 for the title.

“They are very good and we kind of ran out of gas in the second set after just missing out in that first set,” Rehbein-Manthey said. “We weren’t scoring off the serve. They side-outed us six or seven times in a row.”

In pool play, Centennial edged Caledonia (ranked No. 7 in Class 1A) 17-25, 25-17, 15-13, and Cretin-Derham Hall 29-27, 25-23.

“Every team we played was solid. We played tough. We were mentally ‘in’ it,” Rehbein-Manthey said. “Against Stewartville, we made some good serves and caused then to play out of system. That’s what we always try to do, serve aggressively, and play tough defense.”

Playing in their third Apple Valley tourney, and thrilled to reach the finals, were libero Mackenzie McDonald and outside hitter Sydney Peterson.

“We’ve always been in the bottom half before. We wanted to do better this year,” said Peterson. “It’s always fun to play here, to see different teams than we normally do.”

“We’ve never won on the first night before,” McDonald said. “Our energy was high, and we were very motivated … Against Stewartville, I think we were pretty scrappy.”

Peterson pulled out the 29-27 win over CDH as six of the last eight points were kills by her. She averaged eight kills per set I the tournament for a total of 72.

McDonald was the defensive leader with 40 digs and a 2.38 serve-receive rating (on a 3.0 scale). Ashley Crowl made 24 kills and served for 24 points in the tournament. Jadyn Clarner, setter, “kept out offense moving” with good distribution and decisions, the coach said. Mattie Petersen, freshman, made some key digs and saves to keep rallies going.

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