You could say Eau Claire North has been a thorn in the side of the Merrill volleyball program the past two years, but that would only be true if you were talking about a three-foot thorn tapered to a titanium point.
For the second consecutive year, the Huskies showed dogged determination in knocking off the Bluejays at the last possible moment to thwart an MHS berth in the WIAA State Meet.
The Bluejay girls had roared into Saturday’s sectional final with Thursday’s 3-0 sweep of Eau Claire Memorial.
It took North four games to triumph in the best-of-five series, but the first- and fourth-game wins boiled down to a 25-23 tally. Merrill captured a 25-17 second game to even it up, but the Huskies bit back with a 25-19 third game, and jumped out to a sizeable lead in the fourth and final set.
The Jays never quit, closing a late seven-point deficit to within striking range, but North ultimately prevailed.
“The unfortunate part about playoffs is that only one team in each division ends their season with a win,” MHS coach Steph Nelson said. “Tonight was the battle between two very similar teams. When you have teams who are around the same talent level it comes down to who makes the least amount of mistakes. Tonight, North made less mistakes.
“We showed a lot of pride in the last game of the match when we came back from a 21-14 score to only lose 25-23. It made it very heart-breaking because we did come so close, but in the end it was a little too much too late.”
The Huskies-now 34-2 on the season-found a way to slow down Merrill’s ultra-potent offense, one of very few teams to do so in a season that previously featured just two match losses in 41 outings. In fact, the Bluejays had only dropped 12 games before Saturday’s event at Eau Claire Memorial.
“North has some big blockers that we struggled getting around, but our overall defense did phenomenal. Everyone who played had at least one dig, which rarely happens. We made a lot of huge plays on defense, but then just had a tough time finishing on the offensive end. For our seniors, Jess Sabey and Kaylin Byer, it was their last game with the program. They both stepped up and played well and showed everyone exactly how seniors should play.
“It was a tough loss, but like I said, we made too many mistakes, and North played an extremely good match so they punished us for them.
“Not the way we ended the season, but we have a lot to be proud of: WVC Champs, won 3 tournaments and took second at another, sectional runner up, and ended our season with a phenomenal 39-3 record.”
Giving Merrill a chance in the match were: Lindsay Krueger (4 k, 38 as, 14 d); Jess Sabey (19 k, 10 d); Renee Sladek (15 k, 3 d, 4 bl); Kaylin Byer (18 d); Reegan Byer (4 ac, 11 d); Lauren Hojan (4 k, 3 as); Bri Piepenbrok (6 d); Katie Zuelsdorff (4 k); and Aubrey Wardall (2 bl).
Memorial really had no answer for the questions the brilliant Bluejay spiking and digging posed.
The Jays jumped out with 25-15 and 25-16 games in the MHS fieldhouse, then put it away with a 25-21 closer.
“Tonight was another great showing for Merrill,” Nelson said. “Our defense and general passing was phenomenal. You could really see that these girls wanted to take this season to that next step.
“Renee and Jess led our offense with 10 kills a piece, but Lauren Hojan stepped up HUGE tonight and had eight BIG kills. She was listening to her back-row players very well and put the ball exactly where they were telling her. She played a heck of a match.
“Our entire team played well on defense; our defensive specialists (K. Byer, Piepenbrok and R. Byer) all played great and had a lot of beautiful passes and digs, but our front row players did a great job of getting the ball back up as well.
“Memorial had great blocking, but our coverage was pretty good tonight so it was rare that they could get a block kill. We struggled a little bit with our sets as well as a little bit with our serve receive, but these ladies had a lot of heart tonight. We (Asst. Coach Vanessa Kremsreiter and I) keep telling them that at this point in the season it is all about heart. Memorial really made us earn our points.”
Pushing the Bluejay attack were: Krueger (31 as, 6 d); Sabey (10 k, 15 d); Sladek (10 k, 4 bl); K. Byer (3 k, 9 d); Hojan (8 k); Wardall (3 k, 2 bl); Zuelsdorff (4 k); Piepenbrok (3 d); R. Byer (3 d).