Nov. 4—BYRON — Lexi Nelson and Lauren Fjerstad have spent many hours next to one another on a volleyball court.
The Byron seniors know each other's games inside and out, know what to expect from one another and share the same killer instinct that they hope leads to the Bears' first volleyball state tournament appearance in more than a decade.
But ask Nelson about Fjerstad and what comes to mind instantly isn't that competitive drive or Fjerstad's blistering serve. Instead, it's a smile and an admiration for who Fjerstad is as a friend, more so than an athlete.
"Lauren is such an amazing person, on and off the court," Nelson said. "She brings such a positive energy. Her smile is literally contagious. It lights up the room. It's so much fun being around her. She keeps us all positive ... it just radiates."
Fjerstad has played her role as a team leader to near perfection this fall.
She and Nelson are the go-to hitters on a Byron volleyball team that brings a 22-4 overall record and the No. 1 seed into today's Section 1, Class 3A championship match against rival Kasson-Mantorville. A win in the 2 p.m. showdown at Mayo Civic Center Arena would send the Bears to just the second state tournament appearance in program history, and the first since 2009.
"I think the change from last year to this year is that we were able to beat Kasson(-Mantorville) first, in the regular season, and we know we can get this done," Fjerstad said. "I think it's really important for us to get another shot at that section championship and finish it this time.
"It's going to take our trust, it takes our faith in each other, our connections on and off the court to get that job done."
K-M edged the Bears in last year's section final, 3-2, and went on to place third in the state. If the Bears are indeed able to turn the tables today, Fjerstad and Nelson — along with standout junior setter Kailani Schroeder — will likely have to lead the way against a long-time rival that is perennially one of the top teams in the section and the state.
"When you have players like 'Lo' and Lexi, they're dominant players," Bears head coach Shane Plummer said. "They're always going to lead us in kills, but Kailani does a phenomenal job of spreading out the ball to our players. ... Ultimately that gives Lauren and Lexi a lot more opportunities, too, because (opponents) blockers have to respect our other players, as well."
Fjerstad and Nelson were at their best on Wednesday in helping Byron get back to the section final with a 3-1 win against Stewartville. They led the team with 17 and 16 kills, respectively, and Fjerstad took control of the match at two key times with her powerful serve.
After Stewartville won the opening set 25-19, Fjerstad notched three consecutive aces early in the second set that gave Byron a 6-2 lead, a lead they never lost en route to a 25-14 win. Then, in the third set, Fjerstad did it again, rattling off three straight unplayable serves to extend Byron's lead to 20-12. The Bears didn't look back, winning the set 25-20, then taking the fourth set 25-17 to advance to today's section final.
"Lauren's a phenomenal player, has a lot of talent," Plummer said. "Her serve is pretty tough to really get ... she has a pretty spectacular serve. Sometimes she has some issues finding consistency because she has such a tough serve. (Wednesday) she found that consistency. When she does that — you see it, 6 aces (against Stewartville) is awesome. When she's on and doing what she's capable of doing, that's the kind of night she can have."
Fjerstad and Nelson grew up watching Kasson-Mantorville and Stewartville control Section 1. But with a second consecutive season of 20-plus wins and a second consecutive trip to the section title match, the Bears have become one of the teams to beat in Section 1-3A.
"I think it has taken a lot of hard work as our senior class, and we started that so young," Fjerstad said. "All of the coaches who've been here previously have helped with that. It's really important to us that not only do we keep Byron volleyball where it is right now, but we keep it going in the coming years.
"Our goal is to make sure that we're playing good, but also that all of our younger generations will do that, too."