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New Ulm looks to upset No. 2-seeded Willmar on Wednesday

File photo by Travis Rosenau New Ulm High School’s Madalyn O’Connor looks to tip the ball past a Worthington blocker during the Eagles’ final regular season home match of the season on Oct. 21. Also pictured are New Ulm’s Afton Hulke (9) and Graceyn Nesje (3).

NEW ULM — New Ulm High School will step into Section 2AAA playoff action on Wednesday as an underdog.

The No. 7-seeded Eagles (14-10) will meet No. 2-seeded Willmar (17-6) at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at Willmar Senior High School in the first round of the Section 2AAA playoffs.

Willmar has spent most of the season sitting near the top of a talent-loaded section that includes teams like Marshall (27-2), Mankato West (17-6), St. Peter (19-6) and Hutchinson (18-12). But Eagles head coach Sarah Swanson-Cullen and her team are ready to welcome the challenge.

“[Willmar] has the advantage of playing some bigger schools, so they’re going to be ready to play our team, but I think that they might come in thinking that we are these underdogs and that we’re not a good team,” Swanson-Cullen said. “So I think that gives us an advantage to really show them up and show them what we can do.”

Swanson-Cullen said that her team has done a good job of staying in sync this year. She also said that it’s important to not let playing well together turn into making too many mistakes together.

“I think primarily we do a pretty good job of staying in sync as a team,” Swanson-Cullen said. “If we’re all playing together and we’re all playing for a common purpose, then we all do well. However, it’s kind of a caveat to that, too. When we aren’t doing well and we hold on to those mistakes, that’s when you see us drop one of those sets in the past two games this week.

“It’s kind of an advantage to us, too, being stuck at the seventh seed. I think the girls are excited that we don’t have to play Marshall first, so it already gives them that additional sense of hope. And because we don’t play Willmar in conference, it’s kind of nice to not necessarily know what we’re going up against other than that they’re a good team. Well, we can be a good team, too, so it’s just making sure that we go in with the consistency of that.”

The Eagles have put together back-to-back wins at home to close out the season, so there is some momentum the team is working with late. They first topped Redwood Valley in four sets on Tuesday before besting Worthington in four sets on Thursday to end the regular season.

Leading the Eagles this season is Maddi O’Connor, who has a team-leading 222 kills. She also has 159 digs, while setter Natalie Yackley has 612 set assists, a team-leading 202 digs and a 95% serving percentage.

Laura Bertrang has been a force at the net also for New Ulm with 178 kills and 48 blocks. Ella Freiderich (195 digs), Graceyn Nesje (187 digs) and Afton Hulke (175 digs) have also been top contributors for the Eagles on defense this season.

Swanson-Cullen, née Nelsen, is a former New Ulm High School volleyball player who last played for the school during the 2012 playoffs.

This year, however, she will be courtside coaching her first playoff match for New Ulm.

“The girls came up to me at the beginning of the season asking about clothing orders, and they had this specific design that they wanted and it was from a previous year,” Swanson-Cullen said. “And I’m like, ‘That was my graduating senior year and I created that design.’ So they wanted to do that same design this year. So it was kind of a full circle of, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s really happening. I’m here now being a coach.’ I get the same butterflies as if I’m playing on the court and I’m just really excited to see what the girls can do.

“I know that going into sections week was always this big jump or it felt like the pressure was on, but all in reality, I encourage the girls to play every game like its their last game. You can’t go into a game thinking that you have infinity to play, so I’m hoping that we can go into playoffs with our backs against the wall, but in the sense of that we know how we can represent our team. If we come together as a team and communicate as a team, then we have a chance.”

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