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Panthers see defeat in Cando game

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 11, 2021

Submitted Photo Dressed as construction workers, hippies and cowgirls, Rugby Panthers volleyball players pose for a team photo at practice.

After the Rugby Panthers defeated the North Star Bearcats at the Bottineau Early Bird Invitational volleyball tournament Aug. 28, Panthers coach Jessica Fritz prepared for an entirely different game against them Aug. 31.

“We’re two teams that could go back and forth a lot,” Fritz said.

The Panthers took the Bearcats on in their home gym in Cando for the Aug. 31 match. “The atmosphere there was really amazing,” Fritz said.

“There were great fans there on both sides,” Fritz said. “There was a big Rugby crowd. They’re excited to watch sports again. With the year off due to COVID, they weren’t allowed at many games and they were really restrictive with the masks and how far apart they could sit from each other.”

“So, that really added to our fire,” Fritz added. “We played extremely well. It just didn’t go our way a couple of times.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t go the Panthers’ way in three hard-fought sets, giving the Bearcats the match with 30-28, 25-19 and 28-26 wins.

The Bearcats and Panthers clawed at each other the most in the first set of the match. Kendra Leier drew first blood for Rugby when she returned Bearcat Danielle Hagler’s serve with a kill. Panthers outside hitter Brooke Anderson struck next with a kill to give Rugby an early 2-0 lead.

A net violation by the Panthers followed, giving the Bearcats their first point. The Panthers managed to stay ahead in the battle at first, opening up a 12-7 lead until errors and a kill by Bearcats middle blocker Elle Nicholas put the Bearcats within striking distance again.

More errors on both sides kept the Panthers ahead by two points. An ace by Rugby’s Kiah Gault put the Panthers farther ahead 15-12 before a kill by Hagler and an ace by North Star’s Gracie Miller narrowed the score again.

More kills by Hagler put pressure on the Panthers. A long rally between the two teams ended with another Hagler kill, closing the Rugby’s lead to 17-16. A Panthers net violation tied the score at 17 apiece next. After North Star a serve went out of bounds off Panther hands, Fritz called a timeout for a team conference.

The Bearcats’ fight grew even more intense. Hagler and Nicholas each racked up kill after kill. The Panthers turned up the heat as well. A block by Mykell Heidlebaugh and a block by Peyton Hauck gave Rugby a crucial 22-20 lead. The Bearcats stayed on the Panthers’ tails, getting two more of their own. The Panthers kept their two-point lead and saw a first set win within reach before a Hagler kill and Nicholas ace tied the score at 24 each. Another Hagler kill put the Bearcats at set point before Rugby tied the score at 25 with a Gault ace. A net violation by North Star put Rugby in the lead 26-25. Hagler tied the score at 26 each with another kill. Rugby went ahead again, only to see North Star tie at 27-27 before a Heidlebaugh kill put the Panthers in the lead 28-27. After another Bearcats return bounced off Panther hands out of bounds, Hagler went to work, sewing the set up 30-28 with a final kill.

The second set began just like the first, with the Panthers scratching out a small lead in the beginning, only to see it evaporate. Both teams paced each other until blocks and a kill by Hagler put the Bearcats in front 18-14. A Leier kill put the Panthers a 15th point, but an out of bounds block by the Panthers’ front line put the score at 19-15. After a Heidlebaugh kill closed the gap to 19-16, a Hagler kill and more Panther errors opened a 21-16 lead for the Bearcats.

The Panthers kept their fire going. A long rally by both teams ended with a Heidlebaugh kill. The 21-17 gap was the narrowest the Panthers would see in the last part of the set, however. Another net violation and an error caused by miscommunication would set the Bearcats up for game point, 24-17. Hauck managed to stave off the threat from the Bearcats with one more kill. The Panthers scored point 19 on a North Star error before a kill by Payton Harpestad gave the Bearcats set two.

Gault started set three with an ace for the Panthers before both teams began trading leads again.

Hagler’s kills grew even more powerful, bursting through blocks on the Panthers front line. The Bearcats pulled ahead 8-4 before an ace by Joey Wolf, a Heidlebaugh kill and an ace by Saige Connot came just before a block by Panthers rear hitter Joran Jundt to give Rugby a 10-9 lead. The Bearcats blocked right back to tie the score at 10 each. Rugby’s Anderson and North Star’s Nicholas traded kills next, giving the Panthers an 11-10 lead before yet another kill by Hagler put North Star ahead again. A block by Leier tied it up again.

Later, Hagler opened a two point, 16-14 lead before a Panthers sideout. The two teams paced each other again, reaching an 18-18 tie before Connot gave the Panthers a 19-18 lead with an ace.

Later, aces by Annika Johnson and a kill by Anderson put set point in Rugby’s sights again with a 23-20 lead.

However, errors cost the Panthers their momentum. Another Hagler kill tied the score at 24. Anderson killed for Rugby, giving the Panthers set point yet again. Unfortunately, the ball bounced off Panther hands out of bounds again. Johnson blocked one Hagler kill attempt for a 26-25 lead before Hagler broke through the Panthers front line again with another, tying the score at 26. A net ball and more miscommunication on Rugby’s part gave the Bearcats the final set and the game.

Fritz reflected on the game at a practice the following week. “We were out of system a few too many times. It really showed,” she said.

“They tipped on us a few times and that hurt us,” Fritz said of the Bearcats. “We forgot to cover some of those little things. But, they primarily went to Danielle Hagler. And she’s their kill leader. She’s a tremendous player. She’s one of those players where even if you think you have her, she’s still going to do those things that most players can’t do.”

Of the Panthers, Fritz said, “Saige Connot really kept us together a lot of times. She served extremely well and she passed well. She got to some balls that not many people are going to get to. Kiah Gault did extremely well. She did an outstanding job with her setting and her serving. Mykelle Heidlebaugh did really well. Our girls were huge blockers. Kendra Leier and Peyton Hauck are in the middle and their big job is to block. They’re going to get kills for us, too, but they did a tremendous job with the blocks.”

“I can’t say there’s anyone who didn’t contribute because everybody contributed at different times,” Fritz added.

The Panthers not only worked on their skills, but also participated in building their team to improve continuity and communication. Players wore costumes to practice and posed for photos Fritz posted on social media.

“We’re team building in a fun way,” Fritz said. “The kids had an idea to dress up. Each class is wearing different costumes. Our seniors are construction workers; our juniors dressed in a hippy theme and our sophomores are dressing like cowgirls.”

Fritz said the team looked forward to their next game, held in their home gym Sept. 7 against St. John. “It will also be our senior night and parent night. We’re trying to get that in a little bit early because of COVID and we want to make sure those seniors get recognized. We did get to play St. John in the first match of the tournament in Bottineau. We beat them but started off a little rocky. We want to make a bigger statement.”

Results from the Sept. 7 game against St. John will appear in the Sept. 18 Tribune.

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