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Panthers cap week of wins by sinking Region 6 rival

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 18, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT Panthers libero Anna Johnson, left, keeps her eye on the ball as she prepares for a dig.

The Rugby Panthers capped a week of volleyball wins with vindication against a Region 6 rival that had dashed their hopes for a place at state in 2020.

The Panthers started their week Sept. 7 in their home gym against the St. John Woodchucks. Rugby High’s players marked the evening with a tribute to their five seniors, each receiving recognition with their parents on the gym floor.

Then, the Panthers set about defeating the Woodchucks in three sets, 25-12, 25-14 and 25-10.

“Senior night was great. We were able to honor the six seniors who’ve been there for us in the last few years,” Panthers Coach Jessica Fritz said. “They prove themselves on and off the court all the time. They’re great kids. They’re the first ones to help when you need help, and they’re the last ones to leave the gym. They worked hard. And I’m so happy we were able to get this senior night in with a big crowd and everybody was there to cheer them on.”

Fritz, a former head coach for the Woodchucks, described the win as “bittersweet.”

“Their head coach and junior high coach are girls I’ve coached in the past,” Fritz said. “It was great to see those girls still around and helping out.” However, she added, “I always tell the Panthers, ‘We’ve got to beat them.’ Once a Woodchuck, always a Woodchuck, but I’m a Panther at heart, too, so that’s important.”

Two days after their home win, the Panthers boarded the bus for Des Lacs, intent on settling a score from 2020, when they fell in regionals to the Lakers, forcing a premature end to their season. Seniors Kiah Gault, Annika Johnson, Anna Johnson, Saige Connot and Amy Volk remembered how all-stater Brooke Blessum suffered a knee injury at that game, rattling nerves for the Panthers.

The Panthers struck the first blow of the game in Des Lacs with an ace before DLB answered with a kill to tie the score. Both teams took turns leading as their point totals climbed. Panthers blockers kept their eyes on DLB middle hitter Emily DeGree, whose kills had helped the Lakers advance to the final round of regionals in 2020.

DeGree saw attack after attack stopped by Panthers this time, particularly by middle blockers Peyton Hauck and Kendra Leier, with help from outside hitters Brooke Anderson and Mykelle Heidlebaugh. Small Panther errors helped the Lakers pull ahead to a slim 9-7 lead before Anderson, who often powers the ball over the net, scored a kill with a small tap.

The Lakers responded with a kill of their own, then the Panthers tied. The Lakers pulled ahead next 11-9 as the Panthers’ concentration seemed to waver.

The back-and-forth scores continued until game point came within reach. With the set tied at 21, a Heidlebaugh block gave Gault the serve. After a Lakers net ball, Gault landed an ace in Laker territory for a 24-21 lead. Anderson finished the Lakers off with a kill. The first set belonged to the Panthers.

The second set followed the same pattern, although this time, DLB lost ground midset. With the Lakers behind 13-17, outside hitter Ella Brown sent Panthers scrambling for the ball. A DLB block and DeGree kill narrowed the gap to 17-15 before errors on both sides put the score at 18-17. Heidlebaugh traded kills with setter Page Berard and both teams dove to the floor after attacks on both sides. Anderson smacked the ball to just inside Laker territory. Miscommunication among DLB players gave the Panthers another point, then Leier tapped the ball just inches over the net for another. Both teams traded kills again, but Rugby stayed ahead and closed in on game point. Behind 20-24, the Lakers earned a brief reprieve when another Anderson attack sailed out of bounds. However, DLB’s attempt to return a Gault serve went out of bounds next, giving the Panthers a 25-21 win for set two.

The Lakers’ do-or-die mindset did little to affect the Panthers’ determination at the net. The set intensified as both teams again stayed on each other, trading one point leads and ties throughout the game. Libero Anna Johnson threw herself, at times literally, into the game for the Panthers. With the game tied at 15 all, a Lakers attack seemed headed for a gap on the Panthers’ side of the net before Johnson dove to the floor, stretched her arms out for a diving dig and returned the ball just inside the edge of Laker territory, putting Rugby ahead once more. A kill by Heidlebaugh gave the Panthers a little more breathing room before a failed Panthers block and more out-of-bounds Rugby returns narrowed Rugby’s lead to 20-19. An ace by defensive specialist Kaelyn Bachmeier tied the game at 20 each.

A DLB block and miscommunication among Panthers gave the Lakers a 22-20 lead before Leier blocked an attack and Anderson tipped the ball into a gap on the Lakers’ side to tie the game at 22 each.

After a DLB attack sailed out of bounds again, Lakers coach Erika Moen called a timeout. The Lakers fought their way to a 24-24 tie, but two kills sunk by Anderson wrapped up the match and settled a year-old score for the Panthers.

“We knew we had to come out with extra fire and just really be aggressive,” Fritz said after the game. “Even with these miracle plays at the end, with Anna (Johnson) getting that miraculous dive that drops the ball on their side, with people expecting it to be out. I tell them, ‘We’ve got to go for everything. We can’t just settle and watch it. We’ve got to keep going.”

Fritz said the “never give up” mindset played a role in the Panthers’ success at reining in attacks by Lakers power hitters such as DeGree. “We (coaches) said, ‘Keep hitting, keep swinging for the ball, even if you’re not sure where (DeGree) is at, keep swinging. We played it smart and made some valuable tips when we needed to, but the big thing is keep swinging and never give up.”

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