However their season ends, the Willmar Cardinals can look back on Thursday, Sept. 9, as a monumental victory.

Class 3A’s third-ranked Cardinals remained unbeaten despite falling behind 2-0 to the Brainerd Warriors at Brainerd High School. A little bit of grit and some tough love by head coach Leah Ruter were the remedies for Willmar, which captured the third set 25-23 and then won the match with a 25-18, 15-10 conclusion.

“Our energy and our talk,” Ruter said. “Our girls talked about just being our team and having fun. I think that was a good test for us. We haven’t really scooped down in the first two sets before and to come back is huge.

“I just told the girls that it comes from everybody. Whatever you have to do just do it. If I have to stand up and spin in the air for them to have some energy I was going to do it. They dug down. I kind of got after them a little bit and they took it positively and fired up themselves.”

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Willmar secured its first lead of the night in the third set at 3-2. A series of lead changes and ties ensued until University of Minnesota recruit Sydney Schnichels slammed down a kill to tie the score 23-23. After a timeout, Brainerd suffered two miss-hits and the Cardinals won 25-23.

The Cardinals jumped to a 4-0 lead to start Set Four and never trailed.

Brainerd cut the lead to 17-14, but a Willmar timeout stymied the rally. Two net issues gave the Cardinals a 24-16 lead, but a Meghan Smith kill and a Cardinal error brought a ruckus student-body crowd to its feet only to see Willmar secure the 25-18 win.

In the final set, with the score tied 7-7, Willmar outscored Brainerd 8-3. Schnichels finished with four kills in the final set.

“That one rotation having her right back is huge because she can hit right front is huge,” Ruter said. “Everyone is expecting to pound it. I just told her to use her shots -- her offspeed stuff. Mixing up those shots just throws the defense off.”

Brainerd opened the match with its best two sets of the season so far. Kate Stadum dominated the opening set with five kills and Smith added the finishing touches on a 25-18 Set One victory.

Stadum finished with 14 kills, 15 digs, three blocks and an ace serve.

The Warriors jumped to a 4-0 lead in the second. Willmar tie the score at 6-6 and 8-8 before Brainerd built an 18-13 lead on an Iyana Pickar kill. From there it was a series of Willmar mistakes that led to a 25-16 Warrior win.

“Those were our best two sets,” Warrior head coach Rick Kuehlwein said. “We made sure we had them hit crosscourt. We took the line away from them and we passed pretty well. That was a big advantage. Unfortunately, our lefts got most of the offense tonight. We like to move it around. I think our freshman (Karley Dunham) was a little nervous.

“After that, it was just silly mistakes that cost us. At the end, it wasn’t what they did it was the mistakes we made.”

Smith contributed 12 kills, 10 digs and two blocks also hitting from the outside.

Myah Nelson dished out 27 set assists to go with three digs. Hala Daves finished with seven kills, 12 digs and four blocks and Abby Paulson finished with five kills, five digs and two blocks. Her biggest kill actually gave Brainerd a 23-22 lead in the third set, but After a Smith kill gave Brainer a 20-19 lead, Brainerd committed four errors, including two service errors.

“They’re a good team,” Kuelhwein said. “They’re ranked No. 3 for a reason, but we kept them out of system a lot tonight. It wasn’t Schnichels that made the difference tonight. We stopped her an awful lot. They went to her at the end, but they outhustled us everywhere else.”

Willmar 18 16 25 25 15
Brainerd 25 25 23 18 10

Brainerd statistics
Kate Stadum 14 kills, 1 ace serve, 15 digs, 3 blocks
Emma Storm 2 digs
Ella Anderson 3 digs
Myah Nelson 27 set assists, 1 ace serve, 3 digs
Hala Davis 7 kills, 12 digs, 4 blocks
Karley Dunham 3 kills, 2 digs, 1 block
Aden Yost 17 set assist, 5 digs
Meghan Smith 12 kills, 1 ace serve, 10 digs, 2 blocks
Iyana Pickar 3 kills, 1 ace serve, 4 blocks
Abby Paulson 5 kills, 5 digs, 2 blocks

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

Willmar 3, Warriors 2

Key: Willmar rallied from 2-0 down to knock off Brainerd and stay unbeaten

Conference: Brd 2-2, Will 3-0

Overall: Brd 2-2, Will 4-1

Next: Brainerd in Sauk Rapids Tournament 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 11.