WINTHROP - After falling in a 2-1 hole, Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop climbed back to beat Sleepy Eye St. Mary's 3-2 (25-22, 16-25, 23-25, 25-21, 16-14) in a Tomahawk Conference match on Tuesday night in Winthrop.
GFW coach Chris Wortz said the turnaround took place in the fourth set, when the Thunderbirds (6-4, 3-1 Tomahawk Conference) gave up an 18-13 lead but took advantage of the Knights' miscues to force a fifth set.
"St. Mary's is an excellent team and they hustled - they hustled everywhere no matter where that ball went," Wortz said. "We pointed that out in one of our timeouts and I told them that if we wanted to stick with it, we needed to hustle after balls and then swing."
A kill by GFW senior Carolin Goebel broke the 6-0 run by the Knights (6-5, 1-3) to tie the fourth set 19-19. From there, the Knights tallied a service error and two attack errors to give the Thunderbirds the fourth set 25-21.
St. Mary's coach Jen Walter said her team's collapse in the fourth set was ultimately where the wheels came off, despite having a lead late in the fifth.
"We fought back hard and then I think nerves kind of got the best of us in that set," Walter said. "Then we talked about playing to win, not playing to lose - we wanted to stay aggressive but we kind of held back a little bit at the end and were playing a little too safe and not playing our game. That kind of hurt us at the end."
St. Mary's was led by the middle hitter tandem of Becca Schmitz and Deonna Brinkman. Schmitz led all players in kills with 17, while Brinkman was not far behind with 14.
"They were good hitters, they placed it well too," said GFW freshman libero Halley Busse. "We had to be on our toes all the time."
Bethany Berkner also had a career night for the Knights with five service aces - two of which came in that crucial fifth set.
"She's a tough serve," Walter said. "She just kind of developed that here in the last couple weeks. She was doing a float serve and now she's developed kind of a tougher serve."
However, it was GFW's offense that scored big in the fifth set with momentum in its favor and the Knights on their heels.
Wortz said the most difficult aspect of the match was trying to find a solid rotation without the team's all-around leader Lexi Jensen, who was out with a knee injury.
"We were playing with some new girls after one night of practice, so it was kind of tough to adjust," Wortz said.
Senior Erin McDurmont was one of the key players to step up in Jensen's absence - especially in the fifth set.
McDurmont nailed back-to-back kills to tie the set 12-12, forcing Walter to call a timeout. Despite later smacking a ball out of bounds, McDurmont tallied another kill for her fourth of the set. She finished with a team-high 13 overall.
A service error by GFW tied the set 14-14, but kills from Goebel and Korine Schuette put the match away for the Thunderbirds.
"We just had to keep pushing through," Busse said. "It took a lot of heart to push through that."