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Panthers wrap up regular VB season, look ahead to districts

By Sue Sitter - | Oct 31, 2020

The Rugby High Panthers wrapped up two games ahead of districts this week, winning both and hoping for good health in the playoffs.

The Panthers traveled to Surrey first to face the District 12 Mustangs on Oct. 20, which was a busy night for District 11 vs. 12 matchups as teams throughout the region got ready for post-season play.

The Oct. 20 game would be the last for the Mustangs’ season due to concerns over COVID-19.

The Panthers’ first set against the Mustangs ended with a 25-6 win when the Mustangs found themselves unable to answer kill after kill by middle hitter Brooke Blessum, who seemed intent on adding to her 1,000th career kill total. Outside hitter Riley Grove, setter Sarah Blessum and outside hitter Bella McCabe added to the onslaught with aces and kills of their own. Rugby drew first blood in the second set as well, leaving the Mustangs in their dust before Surrey saw their first sideout with a 10-1 Rugby lead on the scoreboard.

Undeterred, the Panthers continued their upward climb until a net ball and error gave the Mustangs two more points. With an 18-3 Panther lead, the Mustangs managed a kill before net violations turned the serve back to Rugby. With set point approaching for Rugby, a service error and a kill by Mustangs’ outside hitter Tenlee Newport seemed to breathe life into Surrey. A Panther net violation and a Kathryn Aberle service ace helped the Mustangs narrow the Panther lead to 23-9. More aces from middle hitter Aberle and front line kills kept Surrey’s rally going until an out of bounds Surrey return gave the Panthers set point. Another out of bounds Surrey attack attempt wrapped up the game for Rugby, 25-13.

The Mustangs scored first in the third set, with Newport bouncing a serve off a Panther for a 1-0 Surrey lead. Two Brooke Blessum kills put the Panthers in the lead 4-2, but the Mustangs kept pace with Rugby, matching kills with kills of their own. With a narrow 10-8 Panther lead, a kill by Rugby’s Brooke Anderson helped the Panthers pull ahead to what would become a ten point lead. Digs by outside hitter Brooke Senger and kills by Anderson and McCabe put a 23-13 distance between the two teams before Newport and Aberle made kills to stop the Panthers in their tracks. Little could stop the Panthers, however, and after an out-of-bounds Surrey return gave the Panthers a sideout, an Anderson ace wrapped up the third set and game, 25-15.

The Panthers returned to Hanneman Gym at Rugby High on Oct. 26 for a previously postponed game against the Harvey/Wells County Hornets.

The Hornets came ready for the Panthers’ aggressive play. Both teams had skills honed by tough opponents, one of whom holds the 2019 state B title. The champion Langdon-Edmore-Munich Cardinals had appeared on both teams’ schedules earlier in the season as an out-of-region opponent for Rugby and a Region 4 opponent for HWC.

After a Sarah Blessum serve and block by her cousin, Brooke Blessum scored the first Panther point of the evening, the Hornets took advantage of a sideout on an out-of-bounds Panther hit to give middle hitter Carsyn Ziegler an opportunity for her first kill of the game. Brooke Blessum evened out the score at 2-2 with a kill of her own. An HWC net violation and more Brooke Blessum kills put more distance between teams. However, missteps by the Panthers and an ace by outside hitter Autumn Sieg tied the score at 7-7.

The Hornets would stay on the Panthers’ tails for the rest of the set.

A kill by Harvey outside hitter Alexis Fike put the Hornets ahead momentarily, but a tip by Sarah Blessum and more Panther kills gave Rugby breathing room again. Kills by middle hitter Mykell Heidlebaugh, Anderson and McCabe helped the Panthers climb to a 17-9 lead before a kill by Fike gave the Hornets another point. Another Heidlebaugh kill gave the Panthers an 18-10 lead, but HWC middle hitter Kalyn Keller landed a kill in Panther territory to begin a rally for the Hornets. Kills by Brooke Blessum saw matches by Sieg and Fike, and with a 23-18 Rugby lead, the Hornets worked to deny set point to the Panthers. However, a McCabe kill ended the set for Rugby 25-18.

The Panthers dominated the Hornets in set two, with the first HWC point coming at an 8-0 Rugby lead. The sideout came from a Rugby error, and the Panthers found their footing quickly to stay on their climb to a 16-2 lead. The Hornets found themselves shut down at every attempt to keep up. The Panthers wrapped up the game with a McCabe ace for a 25-6 set win.

The Hornets regrouped to score first in the third set with a Sieg kill, answered next by a Brooke Blessum block for a 1-1 tie. The Hornets stayed on the Panthers, pulling ahead 4-1 after some Rugby missteps. The set’s lead went back and forth, with HWC in front several times early. After the Hornets stretched their lead to 8-4, Panther Coach Jessica Fritz called a time out. The Hornets’ lead stretched to 10-5 before a Sarah Blessum tip gave the Panthers a sixth point. Two Panther aces and a Heidlebaugh kill saw answers from Fike, whose kill and ace gave the Hornets 14 points before the Panthers capitalized on a sideout to execute blocks and kills by Brooke Blessum and Anderson. Another Anderson kill gave the Panthers a 20-15 lead. The Hornets dove to the floor after Panther kills, managing another point before Ziegler launched an ace into Panther territory. Another Hornets kill narrowed Rugby’s lead to 20-18.

Brooke Blessum got to work again, with three kills in a row and two aces that saw no response from Harvey. The battle ended with a 25-18 final score.

“Playing back to back games this week will be good for the team to get us ready for the post season,” said Fritz after the game against the Hornets. “With the end of the season nearing we know we have to just keep working hard at practice and play hard at every game. We can’t sit back and watch we have to be more aggressive each point.”

“We are doing everything we can to try to stay as healthy as possible,” Fritz added. “I remind them often about hand washing and mask wearing. We are just doing what we can! We are hoping to keep working hard throughout the next few weeks to get to the end of the season as healthy as we can.”

Set 1 Set 2 Set 3

Rugby 25 25 25

HWC 18 6 18

Rugby Kills: Brooke Blessum, 12; Mykell Heidlebaugh, 5; Bella McCabe, 9

Rugby Aces: Brooke Blessum, 5; Sarah Blessum, 4

Rugby Blocks: Brooke Blessum, 6; McCabe, 2

Rugby Digs: Brooke Anderson, 2; Sarah Blessum, 2

Rugby Assists: Sarah Blessum, 23

HWC Kills: Alexis Fike, 5; Carsyn Ziegler, 2, Autumn Sieg, 2, MaKenna Arnold, 2

HWC Aces: Fike, 2; Sieg, 2, Ziegler, 2

HWC Blocks: Arnold, 1

HWC Digs: Fike, 7; Ziegler, 7

HWC Assists: Arnold, 8; Addison Neumiller, 1; Ziegler, 1

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