Volleyball: Tigers roar into state tournament with 3-1 win:

The Pine River-Backus Tigers faced Mille Lacs for the Section 5-1A Championship.

Volleyball team shows off its first-place trophy.
The Pine River-Backus volleyball team celebrates with hits first-place trophy after winning the Section 5-1A Title on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, at Crosby-Ironton HIgh School
Jeremy Millsop / Brainerd Dispatch
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CROSBY — It started last spring and carried over into the summer.

It lasted all fall and on Saturday, Nov. 5, there was one last step. The Pine River-Backus Tigers took that step thanks to a 3-1 victory over the Mille Lacs Raiders to win the Section 5-1A title and advance to the Class 1A State Tournament next week.

When asked how his team did it, PRB head coach Josh Hirschey said it was all about the time invested in the offseason.

“To me, it goes back to last summer and the work that these kids decided to put in,” Hirschey said. “That’s it really. Last spring and last summer we decided we were going to take another chance. In the world of volleyball, it goes by so fast in the fall that if they show up not having done anything you don’t have a shot in this day and age.

“I’d say it started with our spring coaches and the effort they put in there. This summer and fall these kids put a lot of work into it. They’re in the weight room all the time. They are at practice until I literally kick them out of the gym. A lot of nights that’s 6:30 p.m. They put in a crazy amount of work, but I’m just so super proud of them. I don’t think, whatever we average 5-foot-6, we're supposed to be good at volleyball.”


The Tigers sealed the program’s fourth trip to state with a 25-10 Fourth Set victory. PRB needed the fourth set as Mille Lacs’ Ashley Strang took over the third and led her Raiders to a 25-14 win. Strang finished with 10 kills in that set alone. But the junior outside hitter was noticeably tired in the fourth set and struggled off the court following the game

“We tried to put our biggest people in front of her and on defense we just tried to get as low as we could so we could dig up the ball,” PRB’s libero Cate Travis said. “We needed to be tough. Be tough, be tough is kind of our motto. Katilyn (Rilea) is a little younger, but I like having her back there with me.”

The duo of Travis and Rilea got to the spots that Strang wanted to hit and dug out the attempted kills that were landing in the previous set. Travis finished with 23 digs and an ace serve. Rilea added 14 digs and an ace serve.

“We talked more I feel like,” Rilea said. “And had better effort.”

That allowed Tigers senior hitter Hannah Barchus to take over and help build a 17-7 lead with her fifth kill of the set. Barchus finished with 13 kills total.

Hannah Barchus
Hannah Barchus

“We needed the senior to do what she does," Hirschey said. "She certainly got going. I think we may have gotten her a little better match-up up front. She stepped up when she needed to big time.”

Setter Alaura Dahl then produced back-to-back ace serves for a 19-7 advantage. After both teams shared hitting errors, Debren Popkis snuck in a tip for a 22-9 advantage and the Tigers forced three straight Raiders errors to advance to state for the first time since 2017.

“This feels great, everything that we worked for as far as going to the weight room, early mornings and late nights," Barchus said. "Nobody thought we could do it. In our section, we were ranked fourth. I don’t know if people just didn’t want to believe that we were good. I don’t know. They didn’t have faith in us, but we had faith in ourselves.”


Dahl led the Tigers with 33 set assists to go with 12 digs, three kills, three blocks and three ace serves. Not many of those assists came in the third set, which the Raiders dominated from the start. Mille Lacs, a cooperative between Onamia and Isle, built an 11-4 edge before Strang rattled off back-to-back kills to build the Raiders’ lead to 15-7.

“She’s a really great hitter and she’s going to have a lot of kills, but we just talked about shutting other people down and then her and it will work out,” Barchus said. “That third set, obviously, not our best volleyball. We kind of picked it up and got momentum on our side. In the huddle, we talked about serving tough and keep being aggressive.”

Travis said the team remembered how much work it put in to get to this point and just trusted the work.

“We just trusted our training and trusted all the time that we put into this,” Travis said. “We trusted each other and our coach's plan.

“We were in the gym almost every day either lifting weights or practicing,” Travis said. “We probably went to about 15 tournaments in the offseason so we spent a lot of time.”

That hard work helped PRB jump out to 25-16 and 25-19 wins in the first two sets. Kassidy Bristow, who led the Tigers in a 3-0 win over Braham in the section quarterfinals at Aitkin added 10 more kills to go with 12 digs and three blocks. Averie Sawyer and Brianna Hanneken added three and four kills respectively.

“I thought it was important to come out quickly because neither team had lost a set in the sections,” Hirschey said. “It was going to put somebody in a unique position than what they’ve had in the last two weeks. It was important for sure, especially after the way we started here last year.”

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The Tigers fell 3-0 to Walker-Hackensack-Akeley in last year’s section final. This year’s team joins the 2017, 2005 and 2004 PRB teams to have advanced to state.


“This is so exciting,” Rilea said.

Mille Lacs 16 19 25 10

Pine River-Backus 25 25 14 25

Pine River-Backus statistics

Hannah Barchus 1 set assist, 15 digs, 13 kills, 5 blocks, 1 ace serve

Kassidy Bristow 12 digs, 10 kills, 3 blocks

Cate Travis 23 digs, 1 ace serve

Brianna Hanneken 4 digs, 4 kills, 1 block

Debren Popkes 1 dig, 2 kills

Averie Sawyer 8 digs, 3 kills, 1 block

Alaura Dahl 33 set assists, 12 digs, 3 kills, 3 blocks, 3 ace serves

Kaitlyn Rilea 14 digs, 1 ace serve

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or Follow on Twitter at

PRB 3, Mille Lacs 1

Key: PRB jumped out early and rebounded from a third set loss

Overall: PRB 27-4, MiL 24-6

Next: Pine River-Backus vs. No. 3 Mabel-Canton in Class 1A State Tournament at Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10.

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