Wolves’ upset bid falls short

State-ranked Carlton downs Ely in 7A semifinal clash

by Tom Coombe
For the second time in as many years, Carlton stood in the way of Ely’ quest for a berth in the Section 7A finals.
But the top-seeded Bulldogs knew they were in for a battle Wednesday.
The defending Section 7A champions survived a first-game scare and a third-game hiccup while pulling out a 25-22. 25-11, 23-25, 25-18 victory at Hibbing’s Lincoln Gymnasium.
Ely, which finished 25-4, fell in the 7A semifinals to the Bulldogs just as it did in 2018, but the rematch was far more competitive than last year’s Carlton sweep.
The state-ranked Bulldogs (27-2), who haven’t lost to a 7A team in more than two years and hadn’t lost as much as a set since Sept. 20, were caught flat-footed early on as a revved-up Wolves team jumped out to a 13-8 lead on some big hits by junior McKenna Coughlin.
Carlton weathered the storm and rallied, setting the tone for the match.
Ely’s potent-hitting offense had its moments, but more often than not the Wolves were foiled by a tenacious Carlton defense.
“Carlton plays incredible defense and they very rarely let the ball hit the floor,” said Ely Head Coach Andrea Thomas. “They make you earn your points.”
Carlton, led by senior hitters Alaina Bennett and Abby Mickle, tightened its defense after a rocky start and rattled off six straight points to take a 14-13 lead.
It was 20-19 before the Bulldogs finally pulled away.
The second game was the most lopsided of the evening as Carlton went on a 7-3 run to take a 14-10 lead, and then scored 10 straight points with senior Nicole Nilsen on serve.
“Set one we came out with lots of energy and had a good lead that slipped away from us, ” said Thomas. “In set two we struggled with our passing and defensive coverage. One of those sets where it felt like we beat ourselves.”
Backed by a boisterous Ely crowd, the Wolves would not go down quietly.
They fell behind 9-7 but soon began to take advantage of Carlton errors, with Coughlin, Brielle Kallberg and Erika Mattson all scoring key hits and Jenna Merhar providing sound defense in the middle.
Ely got the win and scored two of the first three points in the fourth game before Carlton reasserted itself.
Back-to-back kills by Bennett put the Bulldogs ahead 8-4, and the closest the Wolves would come the rest of the way was 20-17.
A three-point run gave the Bulldogs the advantage and all but finished Ely off.
“In set three we rallied and showed great resiliency,” said Thomas.
“Set four, we were battling back the whole time, but we never gave up.”
Coughlin, the only junior in Ely’s senior-dominated lineup, recorded 15 kills and 12 digs to pace the Wolves.
Kallberg closed out a stellar prep career by reaching double-digits in kills (10) and adding eight digs and six blocks.
Mattson was all over the floor on defense, notching 19 digs and adding nine kills, and fellow senior Winter Sainio added three blocks.
As she has all year, senior setter McCartney Kaercher directed traffic, finishing with 35 set assists and 17 digs.
The loss ended a remarkable two-year run for the Wolves, which included the only two final four appearances in program history and back-to-back record-setting years for wins, with 21 last fall and 25 this year.
Ely also claimed the Arrowhead Conference title.
“I look back one year and think about the amazing progress and growth this team has made,” said Thomas. “I’m very proud of their play tonight and all season long.”
• Ely advanced to the 7A semifinals just as it did a year ago, defeating Cherry in four games.
The Oct. 25 matchup was played in Ely, before one of the largest crowds ever to witness a volleyball match in town.
The Wolves prevailed 25-15, 13-25, 25-20, 25-18 as Kaercher finished with a career-high 45 set assists.
Kaercher took turns setting up the Wolves’ array of hitters, with Mattson contributing 16 to lead the way.
Kallberg had 14 and Coughlin was next with 12, while Sainio delivered three ace serves.
A six-point run with Kallberg on serve closed out the opening game but Cherry caught the Wolves flat in the second game, going on a 12-2 run to take an 18-12 lead.
Kaelynn Kudis had 19 kills for the Tigers, who also led in game three before Ely took over.
Cherry grabbed a 19-18 advantage but the Wolves responded to the adversity. Kallberg, Merhar and Coughlin all had kills in the run that turned the match.
Ely grabbed a 10-5 lead in the fourth game and Cherry never made a serious run.