Saints’ turnaround nearly complete

Up until this year, St. Mary’s senior Katelyn Schaffner didn’t know what it felt like to win 23 times in one season.

In fact, the 5-foot-11 outside hitter had claimed victory exactly 22 times total before beginning her final go-round.

The Saints muddled through 4-27, 5-25 and 13-17 records and a coaching change during her first three seasons.

She admits for her and the Saints’ 10 other seniors, keeping their noses to the grindstone was anything but easy. It was deferred gratification at its finest.

“It’s definitely hard being surrounded with an atmosphere where you don’t win a lot, but it was really good motivation to look forward to the future and work hard,” said Schaffner, an all-West Region pick this year.

That motivation carried St. Mary’s to its first region title and Class A state tournament No. 1 seed in program history.

The Saints (23-9) take on East Region No. 4 seed Fargo South (20-13) at 6 tonight at the Minot State University Dome in their first state tournament appearance since 2008.

Now those 69 defeats in a three-year span make a little more sense.

“It helps build character a lot,” Schaffner said. “I think it made us the players we are now and it makes us earn the things we do have and not take anything for granted.”

The Saints opened the season 10-4, but hit a rough patch when an ankle injury sidelined all-region senior middle blocker Kaylyn Herold. They dropped four of five matches with her on the bench – the losses coming to state tournament qualifiers Century, Bismarck High, Fargo Davies and Jamestown.

Since Herold’s return, St. Mary’s is 12-1 with eight straight wins.

“It kind of threw us for a loop,” St. Mary’s third-year coach Amy Heuer said. “It was good when we were able to play at full strength again to see what we really could do.”

As it turns out, the Saints could do plenty at full strength, including avenging losses to those four tourney qualifiers.

“Since she has healed up, we’ve just been doing really well,” Heuer said. “The girls are clicking together. They know where they’re supposed to be.”

Their last act of vengeance came against Jamestown in the West Region championship match.

The Blue Jays had strung together 24 straight wins, including three over St. Mary’s.

The Saints upset Jamestown in a five-set thriller to claim the title and Heuer still doesn’t know how they did it.

“If I had the answer to that one, I’d be a millionaire,” she said with a hearty laugh.

“I think it was a combination of us really feeding off the energy of the moment. It was our third time playing Jamestown (in best-of-five matches) and each time they had taken us in three sets, but each time we were getting just a little bit closer and a little bit closer.”

Now you can see the deferred gratification crystal clear.

Instead of missing the postseason yet again, the Saints accomplished their ultimate goal – simply reaching the state tournament – and then some.

With South, the only tournament team St. Mary’s hasn’t faced this year, looming in the balance, the Saints have an opportunity to begin a quest for their first state championship. That’s something even the foremost optimist wouldn’t have imagined three years ago, when four wins in a season was a challenge – let alone three in a weekend.

Schaffner said she and her 10 senior classmates are approaching the state tournament, albeit as a No. 1 seed, just like they’ve approached every other match of their high school careers.

“We still kind of feel like the underdogs,” Schaffner said. “We know that we have to work as if we are still (underdogs) because you can’t come in thinking anything else, regardless of how well you did before or in games past.”

Ryan Holmgren covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.