Last season, Linton-HMB outside hitter Nicole Nieuwsma watched from the bench as her team finished fourth in the state tournament.
Now, Nieuwsma - a sophomore -is at the forefront of the Lions' state title hopes. Nieuwsma finished with a match-high 14 kills, including nine in the opening game, as Region 3-champion Linton won in straight sets (25-16, 25-13, 25-14) against Dickinson Trinity in the first round of the state tournament Thursday at the Minot State University Dome.
Despite the success, Nieuwsma remains humble.
"I don't really think of myself as being that great of a player," she said. "I just don't give myself that much credit I guess."
The Lions (18-3-1 overall) found themselves in a 6-1 hole in the first set, prompting coach Jaime Richter to call timeout. In the huddle, Richter told her players they needed to get their offense going.
Linton responded with a 12-6 run to take its first lead of the match. Junior outside hitter McKenna Flyberg had four kills and junior middle blocker Kaidra Larson recorded two of her match-high four aces during the run.
"Right away when we got down, we decided we had to start stepping it up," Nieuwsma said. "Once we stepped it up, we realized that we had to keep stepping it up or else the other team was going to come back."
With the Lions leading 15-14 in the first set, Nieuwsma took over, recording four consecutive kills and scoring eight of Linton's final 10 points to win the game.
"The first set, with them getting up on us and then with us taking that big run, I think that just gave us momentum and we kind of finally felt the groove," Richter said. "We weren't going to get in a hole like that again."
And they didn't.
The Lions controlled the final two sets, taking a 20-11 advantage in the second set and a 20-10 lead in the third.
After a strong start by Trinity junior outside hitter Alyson Schieno, the Lions' blockers shaded toward her to limit her productivity. When Schieno played on the front row, Richter urged her players to serve at her to keep Schieno from getting easy kill attempts.
"I think the serving on our part, if you want to see what won the game, I think our serving and our serve receive won the game," Richter said.
Linton plays Kindred at 6 tonight in the state semifinals. Trinity drops into the consolation bracket and plays Flasher today at noon.