The season finally ended in Saturday’s sectional final for the surprising and resilient MHS volleyball team.
After graduating a boatload of talent in 2009, the 2010 season under new coach Steph Nelson-stuck in the unenviable position of replacing beloved Sally Pfund, who had died an extremely untimely death late last season-figured to be solid, if unspectacular.
But the Merrill girls and their mentor were having none of that. They battled to a runner-up spot in their first year back in the big-school Valley, and after collecting a regional title, knocked off Wausau East in heroic fashion in last Tuesday’s WIAA Sectional semi-final to improve to 28-9.
“Considering what people thought of the team before the season, I think it’s proving to a lot of people that Merrill doesn’t do rebuilding years,” Nelson said. “We may change personnel, but we will always be a team that people will struggle beating. I am very proud of the girls for proving everyone wrong!”
The East triumph put the girls one step from state, Saturday’s WIAA Wausau East Sectional against Eau Claire North.
But North-an excellent 35-7 team in its own right-finally ended the run with a 3-0 victory on games of 25-18, 25-23 and 27-25, coming back from a 24-17 deficit in the final game to end Merrill’s 9-match win streak.
“If we could have played as well as we did against East then we would have definitely won,” Nelson said. “North had really good defense. They were passing beautiful balls and hitting so hard.”
Keying the Bluejays in the match were: Lindsay Krueger (4 k, 12 as, 13 d, 2 bl); Jess Sabey (10 k, 10 d); Kaylin Byer (18 d); Renee Sladek (6 k, 3 d, 4 bl); Brittany Grosskurth (8 as); Sam Hojan (5 k, 2 bl); Jenna Zamzow (5 d); and Bri Piepenbrok (2 bl).
Wausau East super-rally
The season was on the rocks.
Trailing 5-0 and 6-1 at the start of a short fifth game of 15 points after losing the fourth set 25-13 to Wausau East-the foe that had beaten the Jays twice before to capture the Valley title-the season was effectively over.
That is, unless Merrill could prove to be the kind of squad with deep belief and teamwork, truly willing to never-say-die.
“It’s pretty rare to come back like that; but they just really kicked it in gear and had a fire/desire to win,” Nelson said. “It felt good to beat East. They are a quality team; they play great defense and they can really hit and serve hard.”
Merrill and East battled at 19-19 in the opening game, before the jays scored 4 straight. The Lumberjacks pulled within 23-22, but the Jays closed it out with Krueger’s super tip and a big block from Hojan and Andi English.
MHS could have won the match in three games, but several controversial calls-including a smash Sabey spike called out and a late Merrill in the net when East didn’t get close to returning the ball-turned the tide of a 25-23 second-game loss. The Jays bounced back with a vengeance, taking a 25-16 game for a 2-1 lead, ended with authority by a Sabey blast.
East rallied to a 14-5 lead in the fourth game, and although MHS cut it to 19-12, several Merrill errors gave up an easy 25-13 set. But the Jays wasted little time getting back in the fifth game. They cut that 6-1 deficit to 7-6, and went on a 7-0 run for a 13-9 margin with two huge blocks from Renee Sladek and three smoking spikes from Sabey. East cut it to 13-11 with a carry call and digs of Sabey’s spikes, but Sabey crushed the 14th point, and East in the net ended it.
“The fourth game and 5 points into the 5th game was not our style,” Nelson said. “The girls were not doing the simple things-being ready for the ball, passing to the setter, and getting a good hit to a smart area of the court. After our time out, they shook off those bad points and turned it right around. They went back to having fun; when they do that, they play the way they’re supposed to play.”
Powering the win were: Sabey (24 k, 6 d, 2 bl); Krueger (6 k, 23 as, 20 d); Grosskurth (17 as, 6 d); Sladek (5 k, 3 ac, 5 d, 7 bl); Byer (26 d); Hojan (10 k, 2 bl); Piepenbrok (3 k, 8 d, 2 bl); Zamzow (10 d); English (2 bl).
It was easy for Nelson to consider the season a success.
“Overall I am very pleased with how the season went,” Nelson said. “We met all of our goals-to get no less than 3rd in all tournaments, get no less than 3rd in conference, and to make it to sectionals.
“Hopefully, everybody comes back healthy and strong. We had some nagging injuries. Kaylin’s shoulder was bothering her, Jess had stress fractures in her feet and three girls had really bad tendinitis.”
The team will graduate Grosskurth, Hojan, English, Rachel Mueller, Mariah Wiltgen and Megan Zuelsdorff.