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Tough volleyball schedule tests Panthers’ mettle

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 19, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Panther Bella McCabe scrambles to the floor after a return from the Des Lacs-Burlington Lakers Sept. 10.

Rugby High School’s Panthers tested their mettle against an undefeated Region Six rival last week when they faced the Des Lacs-Burlington Lakers at home in Rugby Sept. 10.

The Panthers came out on top in three sets against the 2-0 Lakers, who proved easier to handle than the Kenmare Honkers or North Star Bearcats, each of whom put up a four-set struggle before falling to Rugby.

“They played as a team tonight,” said Panther Coach Jessica Fritz after the Sept. 10 win. “They really pulled everything together. They worked a lot on communication this week and I think it showed.”

Middle hitter Brooke Blessum racked up 15 kills for the evening, however, three other players, middle hitter Bella McCabe and outside hitters Brooke Anderson and Mykell Heidlebaugh contributed several of their own.

A block by setter Sarah Blessum put the first Rugby point on the scoreboard for set one, and soon the Panthers were ahead 7-3. The Lakers went into attack mode soon after with a kill by outside hitter Krysta Berard that sent the Panthers diving to the floor. Still, the Panthers stayed in control of the set. With a Panther victory within reach, however, the Lakers fought back again.

A Rugby front line block went astray to give DLB a sideout and an opportunity to climb back with an Addyson Hughes ace. After a service error, Rugby seemed ready to sew up the game, but netballs and errors at game point saw the Lakers move further up the scoreboard. A gamble on a long DLB return falling out of bounds didn’t pay off for the Panthers, who saw their lead narrow to 24-20.

A Laker error soon ended the set, and the Panthers had the first of three wins for the evening with a 25-20 score.

The second set of the evening saw the Panthers dominate from the start, leading by six points before the Lakers scrambled back to put three of their own on the board. The Panthers came back after a DLB service error and led 9-4 with a Brooke Blessum ace.

The Lakers could do little to stop the Panthers’ climb thanks to well-placed blocks by McCabe and kills by Brooke Blessum. When the Panthers again had a win within reach at 24-9, the Lakers stayed alive when another Panther block attempt went out of bounds. A well-placed return by Anderson and defensive specialist Lauren Casavant ended the set with a 25-10 win.

The Panthers set their sights on a three set wrap-up for the evening, but not without a fight from the Lakers.

After a Brooke Blessum tip put the first Panther point on the board for set three, DLB stopped further damage with a block. Brooke Blessum struck back with a second kill, and the Lakers kept pace when a Rugby service error gave them a sideout. After another Rugby kill attempt went astray, DLB tied the set 3-3, then pulled ahead with a service ace. The Lakers stayed on the Panthers’ tails for several more plays, leading, tying and falling behind by one or two points until the Panthers widened the gap to 14-11. Well-placed blocks by Brooke Blessum and the Panther front line combined with service aces to put Rugby ahead 18-11. A Laker tip and a Panther error narrowed the score to 18-13, but a McCabe kill brought the Panther momentum back. After three more Panther points, Sarah Blessum powered through a Laker block, giving Rugby a 22-14 lead. A tip by Laker Zoey Reed and out-of-bounds Panther returns brought the game point score to 24-17, and the Lakers fought yet again to stay alive with a kill that sent Panthers to the floor. A last-ditch kill attempt by Reed bounced back into DLB’s territory, and the game ended with a 25-18 final score.

“They just had a different level of intensity on the court tonight and they just brought it. The whole night,” said Fritz after the game. “There was that first game where we kind of got a little bit slow for awhile, and I kept saying, ‘It’s okay, you guys. We’re going to make mistakes, but shake it off. Don’t dwell on it. Get back in.’ And that’s what they kept doing.”

“DLB is an amazing team,” Fritz added. “We were lucky we caught them in some of their weak areas and we just executed with it. DLB is one of the top teams in our region and to get that win was a huge confidence boost for our girls, but I also told them, ‘It doesn’t matter right now. We still have to keep coming to every game and play aggressive and it doesn’t matter until the end of the season.'”

The Panthers steeled themselves for their next challenge: Thompson High School’s Tommies, who handed Rugby their first defeat Saturday, Sept. 12, with a 3-0 game.

“I think right now, the Associated Press poll has Thompson in the number three or four spot in North Dakota,” said Fritz. “Thompson’s been in the top five for two weeks.”

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