Panther volleyball takes sixth District 11 title
Rugby High School’s Panthers took the District 11 volleyball championship title for a sixth straight year at Westhope Monday after defeating Velva three games to one.
The tournament began last Thursday, and the #1 seeded Panthers played their first game last Friday against Nedrose after a bye.
The Cardinals brought plenty of boosters along to fill the seats in Westhope High’s gym and the team hit the court ready for serious play, starting the first set of the evening with a three-point lead.
However, the Panthers caught up and continued to climb, relying on solid footwork and quick change ups of tips and spikes to take command of the game.
Nedrose caught a break when a Panther error at 17-8 stopped their loss, and despite a kill by Brooke Anderson and a few tips from the Panther front row, Nedrose racked up more points. The Panthers stayed ahead, scoring kills despite seeing a few block and return attempts go out of bounds or bouncing off the rafters.
After winning the first set by an almost-close 25-21, the Panthers fine-tuned their play for the next two sets, making their 25-11 and 25-16 wins look easy.
Coach Jessica Fritz said to prepare for the tourney, the Panthers “spent a lot of time on our serves and our passing to improve those little things so everything else came better.”
However, Fritz added, “Every game is different.”
Monday’s championship round against the #2 Velva Aggies proved to be different indeed.
The first set of the evening began with a Panther point on an out-of-bounds Velva serve and after two Brooke Blessum kills, Rugby had a 3-0 lead.
The Aggies came back, blocking a spike attempt that landed behind the Panther front line.
A Panther sideout and ace widened Rugby’s lead, and Brooke Anderson powered through an Aggie front line block. A Kelly Swanson ace and another Anderson kill followed, and the Panthers stretched their lead to 8-1.
The Aggies came back after Panther service errors and they used some flexibility to save what first seemed a Rugby spike, turning it into a point of their own.
The Panthers responded with flexibility of their own, giving fans a preview of play styles seen at regional playoffs.
Rugby saved unpredictable bounces with diving hits, runs and stretches out of bounds to keep the ball in the court and in play.
Both teams became more aware of fake attempts and blocks began to go out of bounds. Velva began to rally after the Panthers established a 14-8 lead, and the score narrowed to 14-11 before a Sarah Blessum fake landed one in Aggie territory, setting off a loud roar from fans.
Velva blocked more Panther returns and a Brooke Blessum kill hit Aggie libero Grace Pfennig in the face.
A long rally ended with a diving Panther front row save, setting up another Brooke Blessum kill.
The physical game resulted in a 25-13 Panther win and a challenging second set.
Velva took an early lead in the next set, capitalizing on Panther errors.
Panther blocks went awry and both teams scrambled to return balls that ricocheted off players’ hands. After a 4-7 deficit, the Panthers struggled back but the Aggies stayed on their tail, preventing the Panthers from ever pulling ahead.
After a 10-10 tie, the Panthers saw a Velva return fly backwards instead of over the net and Rugby’s momentum seemed lost. Aggies boosters in the stands came to life, cheering loudly.
Players on both sides hit the floor to keep the ball in play but the Aggies maintained their lead. Panther attempts to rally one last time ended with an error and Velva won the second set 17-25.
The Panthers roared back in the next two sets, reining in errors and covering their entire court with more aggressive play.
Fans on both sides turned up the volume and when the Panthers scored the third set’s first point on a Brooke Blessum kill, Rugby fans let out a deafening roar.
Velva responded by dropping a return right into a gap on the Panther side and the Panthers dropped one right back on the next play.
More tip and kill combinations followed. Isabella McCabe and Brooke Anderson each saw their kills break through Aggie block attempts.
The Panthers led 6-5 early in the game and built on the lead until Aggies’ coach Cassidy Peterson called a timeout at a 19-11 Panther lead.
Rugby continued forward with a tip that had Aggies scrambling and two aces from Isabella McCabe. The Panthers put another win in their column with a 25-13 score.
The tiebreaker set saw an early Velva lead but this time, Rugby clawed back and overtook the Aggies with more kills from Brooke Blessum and a service ace from Alyson Mundahl.
The Aggies fought back from an 11-4 Panther lead, however, and pulled ahead on Panther errors and miscues to lead 13-15.
More missed signals on Rugby’s side had fans biting their nails and at 14-18, Rugby regrouped with a timeout.
Rugby rebounded after an out of bounds Velva serve and climbed back with an ace and some block-bursting kills. The Aggies fought back and the Panthers dove to the floor to return hits.
A Brooke Blessum kill brought Rugby to game point at 24-20 before an error gave the Aggies new life.
More Velva front row attacks ricocheted off Panther hands and the Aggies pulled ahead, 25-24. Out of bounds serves from both teams followed, keeping fans on the edge of their seats.
A Brooke Blessum kill for a 26-25 sideout and a Brooke Anderson ace sealed the win for the Panthers with a 27-25 final score and another district title.
Panther Mundahl described the physical play after the game: “The thing we say in practice all the time is ‘sacrifice your body.’ So, we go for anything as much as we can. Always put 110 per cent in it and we want to keep going and going.”
Tournament organizers held an awards ceremony after the game, where Panthers Brooke Blessum, Sarah Blessum and Swanson were named All-District team members for 2019.
Coach Fritz was named 2019 Coach of the year.
“It’s an honor,” Fritz told the Tribune after the game. “I feel like I’m surrounded by great coaches. It’s not just for me – it’s for my team, my whole coaching staff. This award really goes out to everybody.”
Fritz said Monday’s win was a bittersweet experience for her. She hugged Aggie player Sophie Hackman as players congratulated each other.
“She’s actually my cousin’s daughter,” Fritz said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Touching a pendant around her neck, Fritz added, “When grandmother died, I got a piece of her jewelry and it would be our grandmother’s so my cousin and I share that. So, I just wear this often and tonight, I had to wear it. It was extra special.”
After the Panthers received their District 11 trophy, they learned they would face Bishop Ryan at the Region 6 playoffs at the Minot Municipal Auditorium. The game begins at 3 p.m.
Brooke Blessum said she was looking forward to Monday’s game.
“Hopefully we can play just as we did tonight and win – play good,” she said.
McCabe and Anderson said the district title was still sinking in for them.
“We’re just taking it one game at a time so we’re focused on practice and getting ready for Monday,” McCabe said.
Rugby stats for Monday’s game were:
Aces: Mundahl, 3; Swanson, McCabe, Anderson, Sarah Blessum, 2. Kills: Brooke Blessum, 26; Anderson, 8; McCabe, 8. Blocks: Brooke Blessum, 6. Assists: Sarah Blessum, 49. Digs: Anderson, 17; Brooke Blessum, 12; Sarah Blessum, 12; Anna Johnson, 11.
Rugby stats for Friday’s game against Nedrose were:
Aces: Swanson, 6; Brooke Blessum, 5; McCabe, 5. Kills: Brooke Blessum, 15; Anderson, 7; McCabe, 5. Blocks: McCabe, 5. Assists: Sarah Blessum, 24. Digs: Anderson, 16; Brooke Blessum, 12.
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