Anyone who attended Saturday night’s Section 3AAA volleyball finals between Rosemount and Eagan would have to concede it’s hard to imagine two better, more evenly-matched teams will face off in this week’s Class 3A state tournament.

The two state-ranked teams played one intense, hard-fought point after another – with a few controversial points mixed in - in a 2-hour, 15-minute marathon match at Eastview High School. In the end it was No. 2 Eagan, the South Suburban Conference champions, that won the key points late in the three closest sets and ended the fourth-ranked Irish’s record-setting season with a 19-25, 25-23, 32-30, 21-25, 15-13 victory.

The senior-less Wildcats advanced to their third straight state tournament as the No. 2 seed tonight at Xcel Energy Center. The Irish, meanwhile, had to face the abrupt end to the careers of five seniors who have led the program to a record of 83-35 over the last four years.

“It was a tough loss, but I guess it is better to go down playing great than playing poorly. It was one of the best high school matches I have ever seen or been privileged to coach. The points were long and intense. It had everything from amazing offense and exciting defense,” Rosemount coach Smokey Vitek said. “I think the team knew that they did everything in their power to pull off a win, so although they were upset and saddened, they were proud of the match and their effort.”

Unlike in their 3-0 loss to Eagan during the regular season, the Irish started fast on Saturday and took the first set, 25-19. They then fell behind 14-7 in Game 2, but fought back to take a 19-17 lead before falling, 23-25.

That set the stage for a wild Game 3. The score was tied at 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30, but two Rosemount points were taken off the board during that time, the second of which would have made it 31-30 Irish in a set they lost soon after, 30-32.

The first Rosemount point to be taken away came after senior standout Brittany McLean left the court to vomit. Coach Vitek said she tried to call for a medical timeout, but before she did the referee signaled for a serve. McLean stepped off the court, but Eagan missed its serve, temporarily giving the point to Rosemount. A second referee then stepped in and said he had stopped play, and the point was taken off the board.

The same referee was at the center of the controversy again moments later. Vitek said Eagan’s player hit the ball out of bounds by a wide margin, and the referee ruled that the ball had been tipped by Rosemount. That made it 31-30 Eagan and the Wildcats won the next point to go up 2-1.

“The third set was a set for the history books. I am not sure I have seen a set with so many odd rule impacts,” Vitek said. “(The ball) was way out, almost hit the bleachers. The second referee indicated that he saw a touch. No way there was a touch, but you cannot argue with his call - very unlucky on our part. Those two points were huge.”

Somehow, the Irish managed to recover from the controversial loss and win Game 4, 25-21.  

“I was not surprised by our response or composure,” Vitek said. “I think they played every point and never gave up. They fought hard.”

The decisive fifth game played out just like the rest. The Irish led 4-2 early on, fell behind 13-9, and then won four of the next five points to make it 14-13 before a service error gave Eagan the clinching point.

The loss ended the prep careers of five Rosemount seniors – McLean, Erin Slinde, Abby Nelson, Katie Kalinowski and Alyssa Ottman. McLean, who will play for the University of Minnesota next season, battled through illness to slam 23 kills in a whopping 66 attempts. Slinde, who will play at West Virginia University, put down 21 kills in 58 attempts, and Kalinowski converted 13 kills in 44 tries. Ottman added a pair of kills and three blocks and Nelson had two ace serves.

“The seniors are an incredible group, not just from a talent perspective but also from an attitude and drive perspective. They were driven and focus since last spring,” Vitek said. “I think the other aspect of our seniors is how well they complement each other. Their personalities and approaches are different and it really made them a solid leadership team. They also knew how important it was to get everyone on the team just as focused as they were.”

The Irish defense showed up focused and slowed Eagan’s attack with a season-high 124 digs. Katie Lienemann led the back row with 37, Slinde had 27 and Madeline Mackinac and McLean each chipped in with 12.

Mackinac (28 assists) and Slinde (24 assists) split setting duties.

Mari Hinkle led the Irish with 30 serve receptions and Lienemann had 21.

The Irish finished with a record of 24-6.