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With new faces, Panthers begin season with tournament win

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 4, 2021

The Rugby Panthers celebrate a kill seconds after it lands in the Bottineau Stars’ court at the Bottineau Early Bird Tournament. Sue Sitter/PCT

With new faces on the volleyball court, the Rugby Panthers started their 2021 season off as they had last year – by winning the Bottineau Invitational Early Bird Tournament Aug. 28.

“We knew this season was going to look different. We weren’t sure how it would look. To be able to come back and repeat this from last year was amazing,” Panthers coach Jessica Fritz said after the team received medals for their tournament win.

The Panthers started their day in Bottineau by defeating Rolette and St. John before advancing through the ranks to face pool winners Bottineau, Velva and finally, the North Star Bearcats.

The Bottineau Stars were the Panthers’ first opponent for the tougher afternoon tournament sets.

The Panthers found themselves catching up to the Stars for the first set, ultimately trailing by six points and losing 19-25 before coming back stronger in the second set. This time, Rugby pulled far ahead of the Stars early in the game and never looked back. The decisive 25-14 victory not only gave the Panthers the set, but the game because of the total points scored by Rugby.

Next, the Panthers took on the Velva Aggies, who had won their pool opponents that morning.

The Panthers started strong, pulling ahead to an 8-1 lead in the first set before the Aggies found their footing and scored two aces. Panthers hitters Peyton Hauck and Mykell Heidlebaugh struck back, blocking another Velva kill attempt before the Aggies narrowed the gap further. Heidlebaugh powered another kill into the center of Aggie territory, and the Panthers soon moved ahead 13-5. The Aggies managed only two more points against the Panthers offensive. The Panthers wrapped up the first set with a 25-7 win.

Velva regrouped for the second set of the game, tying the score at two apiece at the beginning. The Panthers pulled ahead, then extended their lead to 7-4. Velva charged back, tying the game 7-7 with a kill by outside hitter Jaydn Sandy.

Next, the Aggies pulled ahead 8-9 on an ace by Sandy. The Panthers stayed neck and neck with the Aggies before Rugby pulled ahead again 15-12. The Aggies responded, tying the game at 15-15. When an Aggie return bounced off Panther hands out of bounds, Fritz called a timeout. The Aggies amped up their aggression, leading 19-17 before Joran Jundt and Saige Connot stopped another Sandy kill attempt. The Panthers would crawl back to trail 19-20, but the Aggies stayed ahead. After the score tied at 22 each, Velva pulled ahead again, finally winning the set by a close 25-23.

Because Rugby again had the higher number of points, they won the game and advanced to the final round, where they faced North Star.

In past years, the Region 4 Bearcats have proved to be one of the Panthers’ most aggressive challengers. This year was no different.

North Star took the court fresh from a break. The Panthers began warming up after dabbing the sweat they’d worked up in their game against Velva.

North Star dominated the first set’s start, leading off with two aces by middle blocker Ellie Nicholas and a kill by outside hitter Jorie Ahlberg. A net serve from Nicholas gave the Panthers their first point of the game, but North Star’s middle hitter Danielle Hagler bounced a return off Panther hands to win back the serve. Another Panther return sailed out of bounds before Heidlebaugh landed a devastatingly accurate kill in Bearcat territory. A Panthers block and a Bearcats net serve narrowed Rugby’s deficit to 4-7. Both teams scrapped their way to a 10-8 Bearcats lead before more North Star kills sent Panther defenders diving to the floor. Rugby would spend the rest of the set playing catch up, ultimately losing 18-25 to North Star.

The Panthers huddled around Fritz for a talk before heading out to the court again. This time, three aces gave Rugby a 3-0 advantage at the set’s open.

North Star narrowed the gap to 3-2 before middle blocker Kendra Leier and Heidlebaugh each gave the Panthers a kill to extend Rugby’s lead 5-3. North Star responded with a kill of their own but Bearcat errors put the Panthers ahead 8-4.

The Bearcats’ front line began using a series of fake outs – appearing to set the ball but turning toward the net to tap the ball just inside Panthers territory. The moves worked. By midgame, the Panthers led 14-12. More well-placed kills from Heidlebaugh were the Panthers’ weapon. The Panthers pulled ahead again. Soon, they led by six points, 19-13. Panthers defenders held the Bearcats back, blocking kill attempts and staying alert to fakes. The Panthers took the second set 25-15 before winning the tiebreaker for the tournament.

“People should understand we’re an entirely different team from last year,” Fritz said after she posed for a photo with her elated team. Fritz gave credit to Heidlebaugh “and all of our hitters. They all deserve credit for this.”

The Panthers would head to Cando just days later to take on the Bearcats at their home gym Aug. 31. Fritz said the tournament matchup was “definitely” a preview of the next time both teams would meet.

“We’ve just got to get better at reading their hitters a little bit and know what’s coming and what’s not,” Fritz said. “The thing with playing North Star right away is we’ll get to see where we’re at. I think with this team, we could play them five times and have five different results. They’re a solid team and we’re looking forward to playing them again. When you go five sets instead of three, it can be a different result, too.”

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