VIRGINA- A jubilant celebration erupted at Rock Ridge High School on Saturday as the Ely Timberwolves and their fans rejoiced after earning a repeat trip to the Class A state volleyball tournament …
VIRGINA- A jubilant celebration erupted at Rock Ridge High School on Saturday as the Ely Timberwolves and their fans rejoiced after earning a repeat trip to the Class A state volleyball tournament with a 3-1 win over Floodwood in the Section 7A final.
While the Polar Bears got a do-or-die 26-24 win in the third set, the loss was a mere blip in Ely’s overall dominance of the match. The Wolves breezed through the opening set 25-13, handily controlled the second 25-18, and ran away with the match in the fourth set, winning 25-10.
It was déjà vu for the Wolves, who thumped the Polar Bears 3-1 in last year’s sectional final for their first trip to state.
For Ely Head Coach Megan Wognum, the outcome was something the Wolves have been pointing toward all season.
“We always wanted to get here, but it was no easy feat,” she said. “On Wednesday (against South Ridge) we had to really battle. Three of the first four sets were 25-23, so it wasn’t easy, it really wasn’t.”
The Panthers gave the Wolves their sternest test of the tournament, and one of their toughest matches of the season. Ely led almost the entire first set before a South Ridge block gave the Panthers a 23-22 lead on the way to a 25-23 win. It was much the same in the second, with South Ridge pulling even at 23-23 late, but solid defensive play set up two Panthers’ errors and a Wolves win, 25-23.
The teams traded the lead early in the third, with Ely going up to stay at 11-10 on a block by Audrey Kallberg and Clare Thomas. Ely got big kills from Lilli Rechichi, Thomas and Kallberg down the stretch, with Kallberg notching the set-winning kill for the 25-20 win. South Ridge led for most of the fourth set, forcing the match to a fifth set with a 25-23 win. Ely’s poise came to the fore in the fifth as the Wolves built a five-point lead before taking the match with a 15-11 win.
With the Panthers out of the way and their sights set on a return to state, the 20-7 Wolves weren’t about to let Floodwood stand in their way. A trio of Thomas kills sparked a run that gave Ely a 15-9 lead, and the Wolves breezed to a 25-13 first set win.
Floodwood’s inability to land shots inside the stripes factored mightily in the Wolves’ 25-18 second set win, with Hannah Penke getting the set-winning kill.
Ely couldn’t pull away in the third set, and Floodwood broke a 24-24 tie when Kenzie Kiminski dunked the ball at the net and then won the set 26-24 on a Kiminski block.
Rather than deflating the Wolves, the loss seemed to energize them, as they immediately took a 2-0 lead behind the serve of Sarah Visser. The Wolves were up by two, 9-7, when a soft pop shot by Kallberg and stingy defense ignited a run that staked Ely to a 16-7 advantage. Fully in charge, the Wolves steamrolled through the rest of the set on a 9-3 run to win the set and match 25-10.
Key to the Wolves’ dominance was the fact that Floodwood could not key up to stop any one Ely hitter, because Sarah Visser, with 39 set assists, spread the ball around effectively. Rechichi led the Wolves with 14 kills, Kallberg and Penke had ten each, and Thomas knocked down eight. Visser led the team in digs with 18, Thomas had 17, and Kallberg and Penke again had ten each.
Wognum called out the entire team’s versatility when talking about the win.
“We’re very sound offensively and we have a lot to offer,” she said. “We have a lot of different kinds of sets that we can use and different types of hitters that we can utilize for situations where we’re getting blocked or shut down. It’s really nice to be able to be versatile like that. We got a little stuck and kind of in our heads a little bit, but then we kind of shook out of it and we finished with a good game.”
Wognum said her team was eager and excited for the return to the state tourney, particularly after competitive performances against some of the top Class A teams in the state at the Minnesota Class A Showcase Tournament in Burnsville. Five of the teams at that tournament, including Ely, qualified for the state tournament, and while the Wolves dropped all five matches they played that weekend, they were without the services of senior Hannah Penke.
The Wolves head into the state tourney at full strength, and they’ll need everyone to be at the top of their games against first-round opponent Mayer Lutheran, a rematch of last year’s opening round match that the Wolves lost 3-1. Three-time state champion and state runner-up last year, the Crusaders are seeded second and ranked second in Class A, compiling a 26-6 record with a schedule loaded with 20 matches against Class AA and higher schools. As one of the three lowest-ranked teams in the tourney, the Wolves were paired against Mayer Lutheran by luck of the draw.
The Wolves lost seven seniors from last year’s squad, but those on the team who made the trip last year will be a steadying force this year, Wognum said.
“There’s a lot of girls on our team that haven’t experienced state, but for the ones that did I definitely think it made them want to go even more, now that they know what to expect,” Wognum said.
And at this point in the season, Ely will stick with what’s brought them success thus far.
“We have to kind of stick with what we are doing because it’s working for us,” Wognum said. “Every now and then if we run into a situation where there’s an error or we have consistent errors we’ll try to switch it up a little bit. But we’re going to go forward with what we’ve been working on all season.”
Thursday’s quarterfinal against Mayer Lutheran was scheduled to tip at 7 p.m. at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The tournament was scheduled to run through Saturday. The Timberjay will post updates on the Wolves’ matches on its webpage and Facebook page.