Panthers see losses, gains at VB season end
As the Rugby High School Panthers headed into post-season volleyball play, the team found themselves without their crowd of loyal boosters, then without their head coach and finally, without their standout middle hitter.
Each loss became an obstacle for the Panthers to overcome even before they faced their opponents.
Still, they rose to the challenges, taking the District 11 title for their seventh straight year and defeating their first Region Six opponent in three straight games.
The Panthers’ top ranking gave them home court advantage through regionals, and their small number of family and friends had reason to hope for a victory against the region’s top-ranked Our Redeemer’s Christian School in Minot. The Panthers defeated Glenburn Nov. 10 in three straight sets. They would next face the Des Lacs-Burlington Lakers, whom they had beaten in three sets Sept. 10.
With a game against the Lakers standing between the Panthers and the final regional round, Rugby warmed up with assistant coaches Deb Goven and Dawn Hauck in their home gym Nov. 12. Middle hitter Brooke Blessum practiced her devastating kills, each delivered with a leap to add extra height from the six-foot tall player. A cardboard photo of Head Coach Jessica Fritz’s face smiled approvingly from atop a figure made of sticks wrapped in pants and a jacket on the sidelines.
Brooke Blessum’s skills shone for the first set of the evening. After the first serve by her cousin, Sarah Blessum, Brooke delivered a powerful block that bounced off the DLB Lakers’ front line into their court for a 1-0 lead.
With confidence buoyed, Sarah Blessum landed an ace. Then more blocks came from Brooke Blessum and fellow front line players Isabella McCabe and Brooke Anderson. The Panthers led 5-0 before the Lakers scored their first point.
The Panthers stayed far ahead, with a few blips in communication and out-of-bounds hits giving the Lakers five points to Rugby’s 12. A kill by Lakers outside hitter Zoey Reed gave the Lakers a sixth point after a sideout, but the Panthers kept a distance of ten points between themselves and DLB through the set.
Set one ended with a 25-11 Panther win.
The second set began with a Brooke Blessum kill. The Lakers fought back with an attack from defensive specialist Kylie Kramer that sent Panthers diving to the floor. Next, Reed powered through a Panther front line block to put the score in DLB’s favor, 1-2. A Brooke Blessum kill tied the score again. The Lakers answered with front line kills that seemed to rattle the Rugby front line.
Trailing 4-5, the Panthers chased the ball all over their court, hitting the floor at times to keep a long volley going before DLB scored their sixth point.
The Lakers pulled further ahead, but the Panthers stayed in the hunt with a block by McCabe. A few Rugby miscalculations and one devastating attack by DLB libero Ava Willie put the Panthers behind 8-13 before two Brook Blessum kills narrowed the gap.
After another battle between Laker and Panther front lines, Brooke Blessum took a tumble near the judge’s stand. She lay on the floor for several minutes, holding her knee as physical therapist and RHS basketball coach Jennifer Brossart rendered aid.
The scoreboard read 11-14. The Panthers would fall even farther behind in the set when play resumed.
Kills by Reed and DLB middle hitter Emily DeGree sailed past the rattled Panthers. A well-placed tip by Panther outside hitter Anderson and Rugby front line blocks rallied the fans, but Rugby went down in defeat, 16-25.
The Panthers fought hard in set three, but they seemed distracted by worry about their teammate’s condition. They paced the Lakers, landing kills and taking advantage of DLB errors, but the Lakers kept a lead of two to three points before pulling ahead 8-16. McCabe and rear hitter Zoey Wolf narrowed the score with attacks of their own. The Lakers finally pulled ahead, leading 14-24 after a Reed kill. A kill by Anderson and a block by the Panther front line kept the Lakers away from the set win for a few minutes. A DLB out of bounds return brought Panther fans to their feet, but Reed powered through a Panther block to win the game for DLB 25-17.
The Panthers kept fighting through set four, staying close to the Lakers. Early in the game, Rugby tied the score 2-2. Later, Rugby trailed by only one point after a McCabe kill bounced off DLB hands.
The Lakers kept their lead, but the Panthers stayed on their trail. DLB errors brought the Panthers within two points at midgame, when setter Kiah Gault imitated senior setter Sarah Blessum’s signature fake tip for a 15-17 score.
More attacks by Reed and DeGree helped DLB pull further ahead. Sarah Blessum delivered a kill to narrow the DLB lead to 16-22 before DeGree sent the ball bouncing off Panther hands. Two out-of-bounds DLB kill attempts brought the gap to 18-23. After another Reed kill, Anderson delivered one for Rugby that had Lakers scrambling to the floor.
A final Reed kill ended the set and game for the Lakers, 25-19.
Shocked and defeated Panthers hugged and wept on the court.
The Lakers would have a turn at accepting defeat when Our Redeemer’s Christian School would take the final round three sets to two to advance to state.
“We knew they were going to be a solid team coming into the game. We knew we were going to have to play with confidence. We took a little while to figure that out and get going,” said Laker Head Coach Tarra Hysjulien after the game. “Our heart goes out to Brooke Blessum. That’s not a way you want to end your high school career. It’s hard to say what would have happened had she been able to finish. We kind of had a little momentum going there anyway. I hate to see athletes get hurt and we just really feel for her.”
“Obviously, we’re excited to be moving on, but we definitely have her in our hearts,” she added.
Region Six play wrapped up Nov. 14. Tournament organizers named Brooke Blessum Senior Region Six Athlete of the Year. Teammates Sarah Blessum and Anderson were named to the all-region team. Panthers Coach Fritz was named Region Six Coach of the Year.
“Not being there was one of the hardest parts of my career in coaching,” Fritz said in an email to the Tribune. “I am so proud of how these girls fought through a lot of adversity and never gave up. We talked all season about how to be prepared for anything and the girls were,” she added.
“Proud doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about this group of girls who learned how to play sports in the COVID era and never looked back,” Fritz said. “The lessons they have learned this season will help them in their future.”
Karleen Blessum, Brooke’s mother, said Nov. 16 her daughter was due for an MRI to determine the extent of her knee injury that morning. “We had to wait for the swelling to go down,” she explained.
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