MAPLE, Wis. -- To anyone outside their locker room, the Northwestern volleyball team would not have been a popular pick to make a 2020 playoff run.
The Tigers started their season off with an 0-4 record, leaving some of their seniors feeling naturally discouraged.
"It's been a roller coaster, in every game we've been right there," said senior outside hitter Marie Livingston.
"At the beginning of the season, it was kind of... not hopeless- but we started to feel a little down because we were right there. But recently, these past few weeks we've just got that extra push."
All but two of their regular-season matches went to at least four sets. After their rough start, the Tigers eventually found some good fortune in tight finishes. They finished out as winners of three of their last five.
They entered the WIAA D2 Regional playoffs as a #3 seed, playing on the road for the remainder of their season. They opened up against Cumberland, a team that had beaten them 3-1 earlier in the year.
Northwestern was able to put that performance behind them, posting a straight-sets sweep of the Beavers.
Up next, Northwestern took down top seed Barron 3-1 (26-24, 25-22, 21-25, 25-21) to claim their first regional title since 2006.
"It was amazing. It was probably one of the most memorable experiences of my volleyball career," said senior middle hitter Allison Luoma.
Barron is a perennial volleyball power in the Heart O' North Conference, at one point claiming 25 of 27 conference titles. Northwestern head coach Charlie Hessel credits their winning performance to aggressive serving and strong defensive play.
"We knew that we were on the cusp from day one, and it feels pretty good now to actually have made it over the hill a little bit. I knew that we were better than what our record indicated early on in the season. But we just look like such a completely different team right now," said Hessel.
Luoma agreed with coach Hessel, saying that she feels as close to her teammates now as she has with any group she's played with in high school.
"I feel like we've definitely grown a lot as a team. We're all going through the same situation, and we've all just been really bonding through the tough times that we've had," added Luoma.
In the D2 Sectional 1 bracket, the Tigers are slated as the #4 seed, and will head to #1 St. Croix Falls on Thursday night. The Saints were originally a #2 seed in their regional, with wins over #3 Prescott and #4 Somerset en route to sectionals.
"Going into this game, we have the mentality that we need to work hard, we need to push, we need to fight for every point. And know that we do have the ability to come out on top," said Livingston
Northwestern has never appeared in the WIAA state volleyball tournament, now a feat just two sectional wins away.