On to State
The Bluejay volleyball team’s superlative season teetered on the brink of collapse after Marshfield pulled out a come-from-behind win over Merrill in the first game of Saturday’s WIAA Wausau East Sectional.
But the Jays dug deep and evened the season series between the two squads at 2-2 by taking charge of three consecutive games.
“The girls have been working so hard all year, and the vast majority of the team has been playing together for the past three years,” MHS coach Steph Nelson said.
“The previous two years we made it this far but got snuffed out. This year, we finally got what we deserved and now we’re going to state! People have been commenting to me all playoffs that they thought that we should be the one seed and why aren’t we the one seed. This is the way that I wanted it. I knew that we were a better team–more well rounded–but having the two seed actually put us at an advantage.”
Merrill improved to 41-3 on the season with last week’s pair of triumphs. They will face Muskego–a 31-11 team and 6-0 title team of the Classic Eight conference–in Thursday’s 4:30 p.m. opening round at UW-Green Bay’s Resch Center, near Lambeau Field. The winner of this game will play again at 7:00 p.m. on Friday against the survivor of Neenah (43-5) and Divine Savior Holy Angels (41-4), while the loser is done. The D1 championship will be staged at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Merrill is making its sixth appearance in the state tourney, but its first since 1982 when the event used a pool play format. The Jays captured the Class A title in 1981.
Eau Claire North had pulled out sectional final wins over MHS the past two years, but Marshfield ejected North in the semi-final this year.
The Tigers had carried the top seed despite losing the Valley to the Jays. The teams had split with Merrill taking the latter match, but the Tigers had also dropped a WVC match to SPASH, whom the Bluejays had eliminated Thursday night in the sectional semi-final. Marshfield also took the season opener 2-1 back on August 21, but there’s no question Merrill grabbed the more important matches.
“The girls played really well tonight,” Nelson said. “We were making some really great plays defensively, and offensively we were able to go to so many people with confidence. Once again, all of our front row players (Renee Sladek, Lauren Hojan, Casey Steffen, Katie Zuelsdorff, Aubrey Wardall) had seven kills or more, and three of them had double digits. That was what we’ve been telling the girls that we needed all season; for every hitter to step up and make a difference. We were so aggressive tonight and that is why we won. We did not get into a tipping game. We made a great pass, Lindsay stepped up and made some great setting decisions, and the front row players hammered the ball hard.”
The reality of their performance didn’t make it any easier to accomplish.
“I am so proud of these ladies,” Nelson said. “It is so easy to get to this stage in playoffs and then almost get scared. Tonight the ladies did not show fear, only determination.
“The quote of the game in the locker room was from Mia Hamm, ‘You are building a fire and every day that you train you add more fuel. At just the right moment you light the fire. Tonight is that moment that you light your fire.’ Let me tell you, they really lit a fire tonight.
“Casey Steffen played one of her best games offensively that I’ve ever seen. Lindsay Krueger was so smart, and made such great plays both offensively and defensively. And both Jenna Zamzow and Bri Piepenbrok made some amazing passes.
“It was a full-out team effort (Saturday) night. The way they were feeling and the way they were playing, nothing was going to get in their way.”
The Jays dropped a 25-23 starter despite leading 21-18 late in the game. A controversial non-call of an illegal hit preceded a Marshfield winning tip and it loomed larger when MHS was called for an illegal hit of its own with the game at 22-22. The Tigers won the game on a strong spike.
But the Jays roared back with a 25-14 answer, then put together back-to-back 25-21 triumphs to seal a state berth.
Sectional-championship provisions came from: Sladek (14 kills, 19 digs); Krueger (3 k, 38 assists, 3 blocks, 17 d); Piepenbrok (24 d); Zuelsdorff (13 k, 3 aces, 2 bl, 8 d); Steffen (10 k, 11 d); Reegan Byer (3 as, 10 d); Hojan (7 k, 3 as); Wardall (7 k, 3 bl); and Zamzow (5 d).
Declawing the Panthers
SPASH offered an interesting challenge, since it had strong blockers and hitters, and often purposely set back-row or deep spike attempts, paying off on several Gabrielle Swanson hits. But the Panthers also committed numerous errors, including six service errors in the 26-24 opening loss.
The Jays took a 2-0 lead with a 25-16 game. But Point bounced back with a 25-21 contest, before Merrill ended it with a runaway 25-16 game where they led by as much as 19-8.
“(Thursday) night was an exciting match,” Nelson said. “SPASH is a very talented team and they forced us to make some errors of our own. We roller-coastered a little bit, but for the most part, we played a very solid match.
“Defensively we were making some huge saves; five players had double digit digs and offensively we were very well-dispersed with four of our six front row players tallying up eight or more kills. SPASH is a quality team, so any time you beat them it is always a good victory.”
Sladek beat the coordinated Panther double block several times with well-placed tips, then came back with overwhelming hits. Her front-court teammates provided plenty of power themselves. Merrill countered Point’s crushing hits with stupendous saves.
Bluejay endowments came from: Krueger (38 as, 20 d); Sladek (19 k, 2 bl, 4 d); Byer (3 as, 18 d); Piepenbrok (15 d); Hojan (9 k, 5 as); Katie Zuelsdorf (8 k, 4 d); Steffen (8 k); Wardall (6 k, 3 bl); Zamzow (11 d).