Claudia Mueller of Fairbanks (right) goes up for a block against Centerburg Tuesday evening. The Lady Panthers advanced in the Division III tournament with a five-set triumph over the Trojans. (Journal-Tribune photo by Tim Miller)
Volleyball matches that go a full five sets are awfully tough on the nerves.
The battle is tied two games apiece and someone is going to go home unhappy after a time-consuming and agonizing fight.
When that type of match happens during tournament play, it means the end of the season for someone.
Fairbanks fans were left drained, but happy Tuesday evening when their favorite team survived a “grind ‘em out” battle during the Division III tournament opener against Centerburg.
The seventh-seeded Lady Panthers (14-9) downed the No. 9 Trojans (11-11) 25-23, 24-26, 25-19, 16-25, 15-9.
In doing so, FHS advanced to host No. 18 Columbus Africentric at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Despite the tension, Fairbanks coach Ryanne Ufferman didn’t mind seeing a prolonged match.
“It was No. 7 going up against No. 9,” she said, “so we knew it would be contested. We’ve only gone to five sets one other time this year and we lost that 16-18 to Southeastern.
“I think it was good to go five sets early in the tournament,” she said. “That gives us experience with it.”
The first two sets were about as exciting as they could be.
Neither team established a lead of more than a handful of points and there were several deadlocks.
There weren’t any prolonged serving threats from either side of the net.
“The serving went back-and-forth,” said Ufferman. “That’s good for us because you never want to see an opponent go up by five or so points.
“In volleyball, five points can be a huge margin.”
Fairbanks scored the first six points of the initial set, however, that provided no reason to relax.
Centerburg fought back and pulled to within 8-7 when FHS made a setting miscue.
Olivia Vollrath started another Panther run with a kill.
Claudia Mueller’s block later pushed Fairbanks out to a 15-9 margin.
The Lady Panthers maintained leads of two and three points over the next several minutes.
A trio of FHS hitting and passing errors eventually deadlocked the battle at 22.
The Trojans’ net serve broke the stalemate.
Anna Higbee’s ace serve then gave Fairbanks a 24-22 lead.
The Trojans tallied another point when the Panthers hit the ball out of play.
Anna Mueller blasted the ball over the net for Fairbanks.
Centerburg’s ensuing dig on the play sailed off the court to give FHS the first-set triumph.
The Lady Panthers led by as many as five points midway through the second game.
Errant hit attempts, though, allowed the Trojans to eventually go on top 15-13.
Fairbanks regained the upper hand at 16-15 when Reese Poling’s serve skimmed the top of the net and fell to the floor for an ace.
Both teams swapped mistakes as the score was later tied at 20-all.
Stalemates continued at points 23 and 24.
The Trojans took a 25-24 edge when Fairbanks’ next hit went out-of-bounds.
Centerburg’s Gwyn Sands then ripped a kill to even the match at 1-1.
The Lady Panthers took the lead early during the third set and held it the rest of the way.
The Trojans stayed within a few points until a set from Kaelynn Sphapmixay to Caydee Breneman pushed FHS out to a 15-10 margin.
The visitors were never able to cut the margin to less than five points down the stretch as Fairbanks took a 2-1 margin in sets.
Fairbanks couldn’t get untracked during the fourth game.
Centerburg went up by a 7-2 count and maintained a fairly comfortable lead the rest of the game.
The Lady Panthers mistimed a couple of passes and sets that added points to the Trojans’ side of the ledger.
With the match tied at two sets apiece, it was do-or-die time for both teams.
Higbee put the ball away to tie the game at 3-3.
Centerburg then scored two quick points.
A handful of Trojan hitting errors, though, eventually led to a 9-5 FHS lead.
“We were able to hold the serve during this set,” said Ufferman.
At that point, the Lady Panthers made their move.
Claudia Mueller tipped the ball over for a kill to put Fairbanks within a point of victory at 14-7.
Centerburg staved off elimination with a pair of markers.
An errant Trojan block, however, ended the set and marathon match in FHS’ favor.
Stats revealed that Higbee tallied 29 digs and 13 kills.
Sphapmixay led the offense with 42 assists, five kills and a pair of serving aces.
Breneman finished with 13 kills, while the Mueller sisters combined for 17.
Grace Gorton notched 17 digs and Poling had five aces.