Jeremy Ratliff & Kelly O’Day
Foto News Sports Staff
Following Thursday’s 3-1 triumph over West Salem in the Sectional semi-finals, the 17th-ranked Jays were off to all-too-familiar Medford for a showdown with the not-so-familiar 18th-ranked Altoona Railroaders, who packed a daunting 44-3 overall record headed into the WIAA sectional final match.
Merrill delivered the first blow with a 25-22 first set, but the Railroaders would take over from there, churning out sets of 25-23, 25-21 and 25-16 to seal the ladies’ fate.
“It was a disappointing end to an incredible season,” said head coach Kris Krug.
“We started off hot in the first set and even rallied back in the 2nd. If we could have taken that second set, it might have been a totally different story. Our seniors were so awesome this season with their desire and leadership. I couldn’t be more proud of this group of girls!”
Altoona’s solid defense negated the Jays’ powerful serving weapon, and they finished with just one ace.
Stats- Anna Finnell (16 k, 4 d); Morgan Wardall (12 k, 6 d, 2 bl); Emily Page (41 as, 11 d); Rylee Folz (9 k, 3 d, 4 bl); Maddix Bonnell (3 k, 13 d, 4 bl); Katie Zelinski (9 k, 3 bl); Ali Zamzow (14 d); Chey Pyka (8 d).
Rallying past Panthers
Once again, the Bluejay volleyball team dug itself a hole to start off a playoff match.
Once again, it didn’t matter a whit.
The top-seeded Bluejays met up with West Salem in Stevens Point on Thursday night’s WIAA sectional semi-final, and the Panthers jumped out to a 17-11 lead. Merrill rallied all the way into a 19-17 lead, but West Salem closed out the set with an 8-1 run including the final six points.
“West Salem was rock solid on serve receive,” MHS coach Kris Krug stated. “It seemed impossible to ace a serve in the first set. Although we started slow in the first set, we battled back. I thought we were going to steal that game from them after being down by seven points. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a decent attack and were on the defense.
“Thankfully, the girls regrouped and came back the next three sets hungry! They proved how persistent they can be to overcome adversity.”
The girls would close out the match with three straight wins.
The second set proved to be a mirror image of the first. West Salem got behind 6-2 early, rallied within 14-12, only to see their rivals rip off 11 of the next 13 points. MHS capped it off with a couple of aces, a deep Rylee Folz tip and several West Salem errors.
Merrill trailed 13-12 in the third, and pushed back to 22-17 before the Panthers cut it to 23-19. Anna Finnell hammered home the winning points to the 25-20 set.
The Panthers took an early 5-3 lead in the fourth set, the Jays jumped back 6-5, and then the teams battled close all the way to 13-13. A mini-run gave MHS an 18-13 lead, and a mini-run back pulled the Panthers within 19-18. But a Folz tip and spike, a Lindsey Casper ace and Maddix Bonnell smash put the Jays in the 24-20 driver’s seat. West Salem scored twice on tough plays, the first where a Merrill tip sat on top of the net before dropping back and the second where a Folz smash appeared to be touched on the block before going long.
Unlike earlier when a controversial call seemed to rattle the Jays, this time the Jays set up Finnell and she hammered home the match winner.
The Bluejays counted on strong play all the way around, with hammered spikes from Finnell and Folz, several blocks and spikes from Morgan Wardall and Katie Zelinski, great sets from Emily Page, all-around play from Bonnell and amazing saves and serves from Ali Zamzow, Chey Pyka and Casper.
“At first it looked like deer in the headlights out there,” Krug said. “Then we started to speed up our offense and they couldn’t keep up.
“When I first scouted this team, they looked very beatable, but they were very athletic and fast. We had to be swinging hard to win. That’s our game.”
Stats- Wardall (14 k, 4 d, 3 bl); Folz (14 k, 4 d); Finnell (14 k); Page (43 as, 19 d); Zamzow (20 d, 3 ac); Pyka (17 d, 4 ac); Casper (8 d, 2 ac); Zelinski (4 k).
From the very start of the season, the Bluejays proved themselves a force to be reckoned with.
After running away with UW-Whitewater’s Warhawk Invitational meet in late August, the ladies would go on to evolve into a seemingly dauntless juggernaut, building momentum with every set. In fact, in thirty bouts played this season, the Jays dropped only three.
Two losses came at that opening tourney – although the Jays would rally to win it – and two more came to WVC arch-nemesis Marshfield and Wausau Newman in the Tiger Invite on Aug. 25. The Jays would get vengeance on the Tigers on Sept. 3, but later lose in the WVC #2 on Oct. 10. No matter, the Tigers dropped two matches on the Valley sked and Merrill worked a third WVC title in the last four years.
Following tie and second loss to Newman on September 5th, the ladies added a whole new meaning to ‘playing for keeps’ as they took off on a 15-game win streak before the loss to Marshfield.
When the WIAA 2015 tournament series dawned on October 20th, it was business as usual for the Jays. They steam-rolled Lakeland in the regional quarter-finals (25-14, 25-7, 25-13), rallied over Tomahawk (25-16, 25-20, 23-25, 25-18) in the semis, and crushed Medford (25-12, 25-11, 25-7) for the regional championship.
The West Salem win put the Jays only one match from state, and being in D2 this year, state only includes four teams. Altoona (44-3) may be the favorite at state, since the others are East Troy (31-9), Notre Dame (38-5) and Catholic Memorial (35-14).