It is never too late for a first.
The Rugby High School volleyball team won the program’s first district tournament title with a 3-1 (25-22, 17-25, 25-20, 25-20) win over Bottineau on Monday.
Putting the final touches on the match was senior ReeAnn Christianson, who connected on the winning kill.
“It all just happened so fast,” Christianson said. “I just remember I hit it right in the right spot. It was awesome to be district champs and it was the best feeling ever.”
The Panthers (24-8) entered the tournament with the No. 1 seed and held to it with a 3-0 semifinal win over Westhope-Newburg on Oct. 31.
Monday’s rematch with the host and No. 3 seed Stars finished with the same match score as the regular season meeting in Bottineau. The first match gave RHS a perfect 6-0 record in regular season District 11 play. The second match meant a bit more and gave RHS a top seed in next week’s Region 6 tournament, where the Panthers will open with District 12 No. 4 seed Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood (26-9) on Monday at Minot Municipal Auditorium.
“The (championship) atmosphere was amazing,” said RHS coach Jessica Fritz, named District Coach of the Year. “We had a huge crowd and that just got the girls really pumped up and excited. They played a positive, happy, we’re-here-to-win game and a lot of that was our fan support.”
The Panthers started strong and had to hold off a tough Bottineau side for a close edge in the first set. A key component to going up early was the consistent serving of senior Alyssa Mattern, who finished with a match-high eight aces.
“I know serving is a big deal and any mis-serve is giving the other team points,” Mattern said, “so I’ve been focusing on just getting it over and keeping the ball in play.”
Said Fritz: “Her first time up serving, she served five or six in a row, not all aces, but she kept them in and that set the tone for the game. They just had a hard time with our service game and that helped out a lot.”
The Panthers also focused on limiting Bottineau’s hitters, which is no easy task. Senior-Athlete of the Year Stephanie Brenden finished with 19 kills for the Stars and teammate Paige Vad added 10. The strong individual numbers weren’t enough to break a stout RHS defensive effort, led by Mattern and junior Lauren Kraft with 25 digs each. Senior Darby Deckert added 24 digs.
“Defensively, we had worked on a few different things at our last practice that we knew Bottineau would do, and it helped a lot,” Fritz said. “We got some blocks against their big hitters. A lot were soft blocks to soften it up for the back row.”
Senior hitter Emily Stier joined Christianson to lead the Panthers with four blocks each. Stier also led the team with nine kills followed by Deckert’s seven.
Fritz said the possibility of winning the district tournament became apparent after knocking the Stars off the first time.
“We knew this was something different,” Fritz said. “Our girls are usually a little intimidated by Bottineau and those higher teams, but I knew they’d never give up.”
Fritz also saw a new level of commitment before the season.
“They found leagues to go to and camps and they did it on their own,” she said. “They knew what they wanted to do and it will show these younger girls it’s not just how you practice, but what you do in the offseason and how you prepare yourself.”
The Panthers have a stiff opponent ahead with the Mavericks, but earned the right to enjoy the championship for a few days.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Mattern said. “We made history. It was a huge accomplishment for a lot of us and a great thing to happen in our senior year.
“We lost to (MLS) in (weekend) tournament play, but we did beat them in the regular season. We know they have strong hitters and we played Bottineau, so I know we’ll be prepared for their strong outside hitters.”
The winner will face the winner of District 12 No. 2 seed Des Lacs-Burlington and District 11 No. 3 Sawyer on Tuesday.
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