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Panthers take District 11 title for seventh year in a row

By Sue Sitter - | Nov 7, 2020

Submitted Photo The District 11 Champion Rugby Panthers pose for a photo after their final-round game against Velva.

For the seventh consecutive year, the Rugby High Panthers clinched the District 11 volleyball championships and prepared for regional play Nov. 10 as a top-seeded team.

Like everything else in 2020, however, regionals will look different for the Panthers. Still, Jessica Fritz said the Panthers looked forward to a possible spot at state.

“We’re going to focus on the little things in our play and, like all season, take (regionals) one game at a time,” Fritz said of the Panthers’ preparation for the games, which begin at 7 p.m. Nov.10.

The Panthers’ first round Region Six game will take place at Rugby High’s Hanneman Gym. Each subsequent game will be played on the home court of the higher-seeded team to reduce crowd size and allow for social distancing. Unlike past regional tournaments, this year’s tournament will have no third-place game.

The Panthers will face Glenburn’s Panthers for their first tournament game before the winner of the game advances to take on either Des Lacs-Burlington or Drake-Anamoose at the higher seed’s home gym Nov. 12.

The road to regionals began at home Oct. 30, where the Panthers hosted the Drake-Anamoose Raiders at the Hanneman Gym in Rugby High School. The Raiders fought against powerful Panther middle hitters Brooke Blessum and Bella McCabe, flanked by outside hitters Brooke Anderson and Mykell Heidlebaugh, who formed a solid wall to block any Raider attempts to gain the upper hand.

After fighting for 16 points in the first set, the Raiders fell further behind in the second, losing 25-9 to Rugby. Set three began with a Sarah Blessum serve, returned by the Raiders before a kill by Brooke Blessum sent the ball bouncing out of Raider territory into the school hallway. The Raiders scored their first point on a kill by outside hitter Shania Martin before the Panthers answered with two kills of their own. An ace by Panthers Riley Grove and a kill by Anderson put more distance between Rugby and the Raiders before the Raiders answered with a kill by middle hitter Taryn Sieg. Another kill by Martin, an ace by rear hitter Jamie Lemer and a few errors by Panthers put more points on the scoreboard for the Raiders, but the Panthers kept a comfortable distance ahead until a few more Rugby errors put the Raiders within a four-point reach. After a Raider service error, the Panthers’ sideout resulted in an 18-13 lead, and the home crowd had victory in sight.

The Raiders saw a chance for redemption when more Panther errors narrowed the score to 21-15, but a Raider misserve and a net return put the Panthers near game point. A Panther misserve, a block by the Raider front line and an ace by Lemer kept the Raiders alive, reducing the Panthers’ lead to 23-19 before a misserve gave Rugby the set and game point. One more sideout on a Rugby net ball gave Drake-Anamoose yet another chance before Brooke Blessum put the game away for Rugby.

Another three-set win lay in store for the Panthers in their home gym when they took on Velva’s Aggies for the championships Monday, Nov. 2.

The second-seeded Aggies would prove to be tough contenders.

The Aggies scored first on a kill by outside hitter Camryn Volk and an attempted attack went out of bounds for Rugby setter Sarah Blessum before her cousin Brooke Blessum landed a kill in Aggie territory for a 1-2 Panthers deficit. A Brooke Blessum block came next to tie the score 2-2 before a block by Velva’s front line put the Aggies in front once more. Both teams traded attacks and scores until the Aggies led 7-4. The battle kept fans from both sides on the edges of their seats. The Panthers began to pull ahead with a McCabe ace, and Rugby built on their 10-9 lead with kills by Brooke Blessum and Heidlebaugh. An out-of-bounds Panthers return did little to stop Rugby’s forward momentum, and Velva Coach Cassidy Peterson called a timeout at a 17-10 Rugby lead. The Aggies steadied themselves and climbed up the scoreboard again, taking advantage of a few Panther errors and landing a Volk kill to narrow Rugby’s lead to 18-16. Kills by Anderson and blocks by the Panthers’ front line widened the gap yet again. A kill by McCabe gave the Panthers a 24-17 lead before a misserve gave the Aggies a temporary reprieve. Sarah Blessum sent a tip over the net next, giving the Panthers a 25-18 first set win.

Rugby established a commanding lead in the second set, stretching the margin to 8-1 before a service error gave the Aggies their second point. Velva middle hitter Sophie Hackman made a kill for a third Aggie point and Rugby middle hitter Peyton Hauck answered with a point of her own. An ace by outside hitter Brooke Senger put the Panthers further ahead, but a net violation and kill by Volk made the score 13-6. Velva would manage only four more points for the set before a Brooke Blessum kill ended it for the Panthers 25-10.

Set three began with a blocks by Velva middle hitter Rylee Franzen and the Panthers found themselves trailing 0-3 before a Brooke Blessum block gave the Panthers their first point.

Both teams paced each other again as in the first set, and fans wondered if a fourth set was on the horizon. A well-executed Senger ace tied the score at 5 all. After a sideout, Brooke Blessum tied the score at 6 apiece with a kill. An ace by Anderson and a kill by Heidlebaugh followed another Brooke Blessum kill to widen the Panthers’ lead to 11-6 before Franzen answered with a kill for Velva, followed by a an ace by rear hitter Madison Effertz and a later ace by Aggies Libero Grace Pfenning. The score tied again at 15-15. An out-of-bounds Aggie serve preceded another out-of-bounds Panther serve, and the teams stayed neck and neck as the score climbed. An ace for Hackman put game point closer for the Aggies for the first time all evening before Fritz called a Rugby timeout with the Panthers trailing 17-19.

The Panthers regrouped with unanswered kills from Heidlebaugh and Brooke Blessum. Peterson called a Velva timeout with the Panthers in the lead 22-18. The timeout did little to help the Aggies withstand the Panther offense and, after one more Aggie point, Brooke Blessum put the set and game to an end with a 25-19 win.

Fritz expressed optimism for regionals, predicting the schedule and format would benefit the Panthers.

“Knowing they get to host a regional game – which hasn’t happened for many years in Rugby – that’s going to be a huge incentive for them to keep winning so they can host,” Fritz said.

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