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Volleyball team back at home, back in form

BRAND NEW FLOOR - The Memorial Gymnasium reopened Tuesday for the volleyball game between the Timberwolves and North Woods, and with a new floor. The floor was replaced after water damaged the old floor in March. Photo by Eric Sherman.

by Tom Coombe

The Ely Timberwolves are back at full strength - and section opponents have good reason to worry.

With senior Hannah Penke back from an ankle injury and junior Lilli Rechichi terrorizing opponents at the net, the Wolves flexed their muscles Tuesday and turned a section showdown with North Woods into a sweep.

Rechichi had a season-high 21 kills, while Penke added 11 more to go with 10 digs, as Ely turned back the Grizzlies 26-24, 25-22, 25-16 before a boisterous and large crowd at the refurbished Memorial Gymnasium.

Back in their home gymnasium for the first time all season, Ely christened a brand-new gym floor with a statement against the Grizzlies (12-3), who came into the game rated ahead of the Wolves in the Section 7A North Subsection standings.

But Ely (14-5), which was without Penke while losing five games at the invitation-only Class A Showcase in late-September, wouldn’t be denied in a back-and-forth first set.

“It changes our offense and our defense to have them both back,” head coach Megan Wognum said of the Wolves’ dynamic duo. “Hannah is a very scrappy player defensively and Lilli is very good on offense. It makes a huge difference to have them both all the way playing.”

It seemed like whenever the Wolves needed a point in the first set, Rechichi delivered.

Often the Rechichi kill followed a pass from senior setter Sarah Visser, who directed the offense and had 37 set assists.

Early on, North Woods grabbed an 8-5 lead and the talented Grizzlies went toe-to-toe with the Wolves in a fast-paced opening set.

Rechichi and Penke had kills that helped Ely regain the lead, but the Grizzlies fought off two set points to tie it at 24 before Ely answered with two points of its own.

The second set was tied at 16 before the Wolves closed with a 9-6 run, and Ely finally broke away in the third.

Wognum said she felt her team came in to the contest “more mentally prepared” and were ready for a scrap from North Woods.

“We’ve been looking forward to this game all season,” she said. “It’s nice also to be able to be back in our own gym.”

The Wolves had played four previous home tilts at Vermilion Community College, and the game marked the first time the team had been in the gym the entire fall, other than a brief practice prior to Tuesday’s junior varsity contest.

Ely showed off an array of weapons against the Grizzlies.

While Rechichi led with 21 kills, Penke (11 kills, 10 digs) had a double-double while ninth-grader Audrey Kallberg came up with seven kills and eight digs.

Clare Thomas, a junior, had 10 digs to go with her five kills, while Penke and Rechichi combined for seven ace serves.

Ely also overcame some early jitters, which included five serves that went out of bounds in the opening set.

If there were any after effects from going 0-5 at the Class A Showcase, they were gone by Tuesday night.

“I would say in the moment when we were in Burnsville it was trickier,” said Wognum. “But we were down a player and they know (even without Penke) we competed with those teams in the Cities. At first we were shook a bit but when we got back we were all right.”

• Ely is part of the nine-team Mesabi East Tournament on Saturday in Aurora.

In pool play, the Wolves meet Floodwood in a rematch of last season’s 7A title game.

The Polar Bears are again expected to contend  for the 7A crown and join South Ridge as one of the top-two teams from the south half of the section.

• The Wolves made quick work of Northeast Range Monday night in Babbitt, scoring a dominant 25-13, 25-12, 25-9 sweep.

Visser and Rechichi formed a potent combination, with Visser recording 23 set assists for the night and Rechichi hammering home 16 kills.

Penke returned to the lineup with five kills and 11 digs, while Thomas contributed five kills, five digs and five ace serves.

Visser also notched five aces and senior setter Aubree Gerlovich came up with five set assists.

Kallberg had four kills and fellow ninth-grader Charlotte Hegman finished with two, while Sadie Rechichi had three digs.

• Ely’s junior varsity had a perfect week, winning the  Hibbing Tournament on Saturday, rallying to beat Northeast Range in three sets on Monday including a 15-1 romp in the finale, and adding a Tuesday victory against North Woods.

• The Wolves have two remaining regular season home games - on Oct. 12 against Nashwauk-Keewatin and Oct. 17 with Bigfork. Ely is certain to host home playoff games on Oct. 25, and then on Oct. 27 with a win in the first round.

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