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Panther volleyball opens season with two wins

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 12, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Brooke Blessum puts one over the net against the North Star Bearcats

The Rugby Panthers started their volleyball season with two 3-1 set wins in their first week to prime them for a tough schedule ahead.

Their first home match Aug. 29 saw a battle against the Region 8 Kenmare Honkers. Three days later, the Panthers were back in the Rugby High gym, ready for the Bearcats from Region 4 opponent North Star.

“They’ve been playing other regions and they did great,” said Panther Coach Jessica Fritz after the Sept. 1 game against North Star.

The Panthers began their Sept. 1 set against the Bearcats by springing ahead early, thanks to kills by middle hitter Brooke Blessum. The Panthers stayed far ahead, with the Bearcats doing their best to block both Brooke and her cousin, Sarah Blessum, who logged 39 assists for the evening.

Unable to find their momentum, the Bearcats fell 25-13 in the first game.

During a short break between games, both Fritz and Bearcats Coach Aubree Page went over strategies with their teams, who went on to the next game, without switching sides as a measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The Bearcats found their footing in game two.

Middle hitter Danielle Hagler struck first for the Bearcats, with the Panthers staying on them point for point until breaking away from a 15-15 tie to lead 19-16. A Panther timeout changed the course of the game slightly, as aces by Mykell Heidlebaugh and Brooke Blessum kills narrowed the gap, but other kill attempts missed their marks and errors kept the lead out of reach. A final Bearcat tip by Hagler sealed the 25-20 game two win for North Star.

The third game saw the Panthers ready to fight back. Brooke Blessum’s kill gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead, scoring seven points before the Bearcats responded and began their own climb in point totals to narrow the gap 7-5. The Panthers pulled ahead after two more Bearcat kills, leading 12-7. With the lead in the Panthers’ favor 16-7, the Bearcats called a timeout. North Star came back to the court and narrowed the Panther lead 23-18. An ace from Bearcat server Lindsey Nyhagen and a block from Sydney Staus seemed they would keep another game away from the Panthers’ grasp before the Panthers called a timeout to regroup with a 24-21 lead. An Isabella McCabe block landed the ball in North Star’s court, and the Panthers had a 25-21 win.

Heidlebaugh struck the first blow in game four for the Panthers with a kill. The Bearcats struggled to keep up this time, trailing 9-1 before putting a second point on the board. North Star answered Panther scores in fits and starts, doing their best to smack the ball into Rugby’s court and sending Panthers diving.

However, the Panthers kept far ahead of the Bearcats, who chased after them for 11 more points until stopping Rugby in their tracks momentarily at game point by sneaking a tip past a Panther block.

The winning point for the Panthers came next when a Bearcat return bounced into the net. Rugby wrapped up the evening with a 25-13 win for the fourth game.

Fritz predicted the season ahead for the Panthers would be both challenging and uncertain.

“Since our tournaments last year, we added DLB; we added Langdon; we added Thompson and Carrington. We’ve just been working on adding different teams to our schedule because we lost tournaments and opportunities to play against those teams,” Fritz said of this year’s schedule.

District 12’s Des Lacs-Burlington had proved tough to beat at last year’s regionals, and regularly plays against Our Redeemer’s Christian School, who often face the Panthers in the regional playoffs.

“Langdon’s the defending champion,” Fritz added.

Fritz said she gave the Panthers advice to help them turn things around after their second game against North Star for the evening.

“Every game, we talk about the little things we have to do right, and the little things make the bigger things look even better,” Fritz said. “I told them, ‘Communicate. Communicate and have fun.’ Those are the two things I said. All those other things come together once you relax and have fun.”

Fritz added, “We talked about, with the pandemic going on, we don’t know (if the season will finish). Tonight we have these girls we’re playing with. Tomorrow might be a different story, so we play every night like it matters.

We’re not thinking, ‘Oh, we can get ’em next time.’ Tonight is the night that matters.”

Rugby 3,

North Star 1

Rugby

Kills: Brooke Blessum, 22; Mykell Heidlebaugh, 5

Aces: Heidlebaugh, 6; Riley Grove, 3

Blocks: Brooke Blessum, 8; Isabella McCabe, 4

Digs: Brooke Anderson, 11; Anna Johnson, 7

Assists: Sarah Blessum, 39

North Star

Kills: Danielle Hagler, 21; Sydney Staus, 5; Gracie Miller, 4

Aces: Miller, 2; Lindsey Nyhagen, 2; Staus, 2

Blocks: Hagler, 4; Staus, 2

Digs: Hagler, 1

Assists: Nyhagen, 27; Jessica Bertsch, 14

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