Merrill rises up to defeat Muskego in state tourney
The downfall of many a team is just being satisfied with qualifying for the upper-most level of competition.
But the Bluejay volleyball team proved it was more than a qualifier, it was a contender in last weekend’s WIAA State Volleyball Tournament.
The girls opened with a 3-1 triumph over Muskego before losing in the semi-final round to the eventual state runner-up Divine Savior Holy Angels.
Merrill closed out a 42-4 season with its first state berth since 1982, while DSHA ended up 43-5.
“Overall, I couldn’t be more proud of these girls,” MHS coach Steph Nelson said. “They met their goal of making it to state. They exceeded their goal when they beat Muskego. And when they lost to DSHA, they lost with pride and class. That’s all you can ask of a bunch of teenagers.
“We had players playing their best volleyball at the right time. We had players putting themselves out for their teammates. And if you ask me, it looked like the girls had a darn good time doing it as well.”
The Bluejays held a 3-4 point lead through much of the opening game with Muskego, although the 31-12 Warriors closed to within 16-15. The Jays appeared to have the game in hand at 21-15 but Muskego pulled within 22-21. A Renee Sladek smash and opponent error made it 24-22. Muskego was in the net on game point on Sladek’s block.
Muskego worked a 12-8 edge midway through the second game, but it was tight the rest of the way, even 21-19 Warriors. Muskego powered a 25-20 win with three spikes and a sound block.
Teams scored chunks of points in the third game. A 10-6 Merrill lead became a 12-11 deficit. The teams were tied at 18’s, 19’s, 21’s and 22’s. A Casey Steffen smash and Sladek hammer closed out the 25-23 triumph.
The lead never breached three points until the end of the fourth game. The squads were tied at 17-17 before Merrill started to pull away. An Aubrey Wardall smash and Steffen off-speed spike, coupled with Warrior miscues put Merrill up 21-19. A Steffen smash made it 22-20 before Katie Zuelsdorff tipped to close an exciting point. Muskego bumped into the net after a crazy point, and Bri Piepenbrok closed it out with an ace.
“Muskego was a very good team, hit hard, passed well, but overall they ended up making more mistakes than we did,” Nelson said. “Casey Steffen came out of the woodwork that match and ended with a (career high) 17 kills. Muskego must have gotten a scouting report on us because we really struggled getting the ball to Renee, because either they were tracking her all night or our passing was just a tiny bit off.
“Casey and Katie Zuelsdorff really stepped up and played huge to help combat them covering Ren so well. Our defense was great as always; picked up some great digs that otherwise could have started Muskego on a run. Overall, I knew we were going to win. Based on what we heard about the team, we knew we were better. They have a couple hard hitters, but we have an entire front row line-up who can produce some great kills. They have a good libero; our entire defense, including our libero, stepped up and played well. Lindsay did a great job of mixing up the offense so that they didn’t know what to expect. It was a great team effort!”
State quarter-final offerings came from: Lindsay Krueger (39 assists, 18 digs); Steffen (17 kills, 4 d); Katie Zuelsdorff (11 k, 4 aces, 6 d); Sladek (9 kills, 9 digs); Piepenbrok (3 ac, 14 d); Lauren Hojan (5 k, 4 as, 6 d); Reegan Byer (8 d); Wardall (5 k, 3 bl); and Zamzow (5 d).
Milwaukee’s DSHA featured a deep, tall and athletic team, and the Dashers prevailed 25-18, 25-21 and 25-18.
“Our match against DSHA actually did go well,” Nelson said. “DSHA is a private school of (1,330) girls; we’re a school of 1,000 people. It was a real USA vs. Russia in the 80’s Olympics. We had the potential to win, we just needed to play the best that we could play. Renee dominated with 11 kills and was all over them blocking wise. Defense was picking up some great digs once again. Our biggest problem was we just couldn’t get ourselves going on a big run.
“DSHA is a phenomenal passing team, so offensively we really struggled getting kills, and serving wise it was hard to get them out of system. Their front row is nothing but a bunch of 6-footers.”
“We may have not missed a serve, but we got aced more than they did and hitting-wise we missed quite a few opportunities. We needed to play more well-rounded, but with DSHA’s defense, it was hard for all the front-row players to step up and help earn some points. I guarantee you though, that if we played them again, we’d play them even tougher and we would have more of an opportunity to win.”
Bluejay semi-final contributions were turned in by: Krueger (25 as); Sladek (12 k, 2 bl, 4 d); Piepenbrok (13 d); Byer (3 as, 3 d); Katie Zuelsdorf (6 k); Wardall (5 k); Steffen (4 k); Zamzow (4 d).
Merrill will lose Piepenbrok, Krueger, Steffen, Zamzow and JoJo Catlin to graduation.
“Next year, I’m thinking that the team should be pretty talented once again,” Nelson said. “They’re returning 5 juniors who all played in the state matches and 5 split players who have so much potential. Yes, there are going to be some holes to be filled, but with the talent coming up, I think that with a little work in the off-season that these girls will fill their roles extremely well.”
Nelson is stepping down as volleyball coach and will be taking over the girls soccer team, with Coach Will Bialecki as her assistant. She played college soccer at NCAA D2 St. Cloud State.
“I love coaching volleyball, but I know so much more about soccer,” Nelson said. “I think that I can impact their program so much more than I did for volleyball. They have already started an off-season workout program that I designed for them in hopes that they will come into the season stronger and conditioned.”
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