Each sectional is not created equal, and certain teams have easier paths to the state tournament than others.
Four of the state's top-10 Division 1 girls volleyball teams found themselves in the same sectional, as sixth-ranked Brookfield East, seventh-ranked Nicolet, eighth-ranked DSHA and 10th-ranked Brookfield Central all were playing for one trip to Green Bay.
The Spartans were able to rally for a five-set victory (22-25, 25-22, 19-25, 25-23, 15-7) over Nicolet in a sectional semifinal on Oct. 27, but two-time defending state champion DSHA was too much, as the Dashers ended Brookfield East's season on Oct. 29 with a 25-19, 25-21, 25-23 sweep in the sectional final.
"It stinks that four of the top 10 teams in the state are in the same sectional," Brookfield East coach Chris Polowy said. "It puts a lot of pressure on these kids and everybody. It puts a lot of pressure on us to play and succeed every single day.
"I'm so proud of these kids. They did something nobody thought they would do. They didn't think they would get to this spot. They didn't think we were going to win a conference title. I was really happy with what they did."
Nicolet jumped out to a 14-8 lead in the first set and led 20-13 before Brookfield East used a 5-1 spurt to make it 21-18 on a kill by junior Gretchen Bruhn. A service error by the Knights and a kill by Bruhn brought the Spartans to within 24-22, but Nicolet closed out the set at 25-22.
The second set saw the score tied nine times.
A kill by junior Mackenzie Schmirler, an ace by junior Ella Mortensen and a double hit by Nicolet turned a 21-21 tie into set point for the Spartans. After a hitting error, Mortensen put down a kill to give Brookfield East a 25-22 win.
Nicolet took a 2-1 lead with a 25-18 victory in the third set and led 17-13 in the fourth set on a kill off a dig by senior Laura Keyser.
Facing elimination, Brookfield East flipped the set with a 5-0 run to take the lead. Senior Taylor Allen began the surge with a kill, while Bruhn had an ace, Allen added a block and Mortensen made it 18-17 with a kill.
The Knights regained the lead at 20-19 when the Spartans were called for being out of rotation. Trailing 22-20, Schmirler put down a kill, and a hitting error by Nicolet tied the match. After a kill by Bruhn made it 23-23, a double hit by the Knights gave Brookfield East set point. Bruhn made a fantastic dig on the next point, while Mortensen ended the set and evened the match with a kill.
Brookfield East carried the momentum over into the decisive fifth set, taking a 6-2 lead en route to a 15-7 win.
"There were times where we thought they had us," Polowy said. "Nicolet came prepared. That fourth game was the difference maker. Some crucial plays in the middle got us back on track."
Bruhn finished with 19 kills, 26 digs and three aces. After struggling to put the ball down in bounds in the fourth set, Bruhn had four kills in the fifth set. Mortensen had 15 kills, junior Katie Work blocked four shots and junior Victoria Berry had 26 assists.
The Spartans finished with a school-record 118 digs in the sectional semifinal. Junior Makenna Berry led with 28, Bruhn had 26 and junior Emma Kiekhofer added 23.
DSHA ended each of the first two sets on big runs to take a commanding lead.
After Brookfield East used a 7-1 spurt to pull even at 17-17 in the first set, the Dashers closed on an 8-2 run to win, 25-19. With the Spartans up 20-16 in the second set, DSHA went on a 9-1 run to win, 25-21.
The Spartans nearly used a late run of their own to force a fourth set, as the Spartans scored six of eight points to tie the match at 22-22 on a block and a kill by Allen. Mortensen had a kill that tied the set at 23-23, but a service error by Brookfield East and a block by DSHA senior Katie Rolfe ended the match.
DSHA is a much-improved team since it was swept by Brookfield East in a conference match on Sept. 27. Senior right side Katie Arnold missed the first match with the Spartans, while coach Caitie Ratkowski made a switch to senior Tricia Siy at defensive specialist.
The Dashers rolled to the Greater Metro Conference tournament title and will be playing at state for the third straight year.
"We were able to build momentum at the end of pretty much every game to at least make it a game," Polowy said. "Our girls have been doing that the entire season. We get down, and we are able to bounce back. DSHA's lineup is not the same as when we played them (in conference). Katie Arnold allows them to push the entire lineup. They are able to spin it different ways and are more versatile with her in there."
Brookfield East finished with an overall record of 30-14.
Mortensen had eight kills in the sectional final, while Bruhn had five. Sophomore Hannah Maney had four aces, Makenna Berry had 14 digs and Victoria Berry had 12 assists.