LINCOLN — State experience.

That may have been the difference on Thursday afternoon when fifth-seeded Fremont Bergan faced fourth-seeded Stanton in the opening round of the Class C-2 state tournament at Lincoln Southwest.

Stanton, the defending Class C-2 state champion, held off the challenge of the Lady Knights, who were making their first state appearance since 2007. The Mustangs prevailed 21-25, 25-17, 25-15, 25-22 to improve to 30-3.

“I think the state experience was a huge factor,” said Stanton coach Tracy Kuester-Burtwistle, who also guided the Mustangs to a C-2 runner-up finish in 2015. Bree (Burtwistle) and Jess (Brandl) have been down here three years and we have a lot of others back from last year’s team. They are veterans and that certainly helps.”

Bergan didn’t open the match like a newcomer to the postseason party. Junior Haley Kempf delivered a kill to start the scoring and the Lady Knights went up 6-3 and a block by Lexie Langley and Lauren Baker.

Bergan stretched the lead to 17-10 on a Kempf kill before the Mustangs closed to 23-20 on a pair of Elizabeth Christensen kills. Kempf, though, ended it with a kill.

“They are a great passing team,” Kuester-Burtwistle said of the Lady Knights. “We are a good serving team and can usually get teams out of system, but they did a good job with their serve receive and getting the ball where it needed to go.”

The second set was tied at 14, but Brandl and Burtwistle had kills and Makenna Espinoza had an ace serve that gave the Mustangs a lead they didn’t relinquish.

“Stanton did a great job of figuring us out after that first game and into the second,” Bergan coach Sue Wewel said. “We had a single block up there and they were really hitting around that single block. We weren’t able to pick up some of the things that we wanted to. Stanton is just a really good team and they don’t make mistakes.”

The third set was tied at 4, but Lexie Langley gave the Lady Knights a spark. The 6-foot junior had two of her 22 kills during a 5-2 run by Bergan that also included a kill by Allie DeGroff.

The Mustangs battled back, though to force a tie at 11 on a Hannah Heppner kill. Brandl, a 5-8 junior, then had four kills during a 6-1 Stanton run that switched the momentum.

“She brings a passion to our team to help close things out,” Kuester-Burtwistle said of Brandl. “But at the same time we have phenomenal setters that get her the ball.”

Stanton broke to a 10-4 lead in the fourth set. A Brandl kill made it 15-10 before the Lady Knight chipped away at the lead.

Langley and Baker had kills and Stanton committed two hitting errors that narrowed the lead to 16-14. It was 18-16 before the Mustangs scored four straight — capped by a Burtwistle kill — to appear to have the set in control.

The Lady Knights had other ideas.

Stanton had a trio of hitting errors while Langley and Kempf combined for a block to trim the deficit to 24-20. Kempf delivered a service ace and Stanton made a hitting error to bring Bergan to within two. Brandl, however, pounded a kill to end the match.

“We just started to make some mistakes,” Wewel said. “Our court responsibilities broke down a bit and we missed a couple of balls. When a team makes a run on you, you have to come back and answer.”

Brandl led the Mustangs with 21 kills and 21 digs. Burtwistle had 16 kills while Heppner had 14 kills.

Kempf finished with 14 kills while DeGroff had six kills and 18 digs. Baker had four kills. Libero Meghan Dahlhauser had a team-best 22 digs and Langley had 21. Junior setter Allison Dieckmann had 42 set assists.

Dahlhauser is the lone senior on the Lady Knights, who finish the season at 25-9.

“Every senior that I have every coached is important to the program and Bubs is no exception,” Wewel said. “She is not only an on-court person, but an off-court person for us as well. We will miss her tremendously, but we have learned from her to be a better team and how to play better defense. She has been a remarkable athlete for us.”

With the likes of Langley, Dieckmann, Kempf, Baker, Emma Walz and Kaia McIntyre returning, Wewel is excited about 2018.

“They are an amazing group to work with,” she said. “I know they’ll put in a lot of time to make themselves the best they can be. ... It is pretty sweet to be surrounded by these girls.”

Stanton will move on to face top-seeded Hartington Cedar Catholic at 1 Friday afternoon in the semifinals at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

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