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Wolves fight to reach final

ON TO THE FINALS - Ely’s Amelia Penke (15) let out a holler after the Wolves picked up a point in Wednesday’s five-set Section 7A semifinal win over South Ridge. Teammates Hannah Penke, Audrey Kallberg, Lilli Rechichi and Clare Thomas are also pictured. Ely faces Floodwood in the 7A championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday at the new Rock Ridge school near Virginia. Photo by Nick Wognum

Defending 7A champs need five sets to turn back South Ridge

by Tom Coombe

After dominating section opponents all year long, the Ely Timberwolves were in the fight of their lives Wednesday night.

Facing a decisive fifth  set with the season on the line, head coach Megan Wognum had a simple question for her Ely volleyball team.

“I asked them if they wanted it, and they said yes,” Wognum said. “I think that was the most important question of the night. They needed to fight.”

And fight the Wolves did, turning a 5-4 lead into a comfortable 12-7 advantage with key hits from Hannah Penke, Clare Thomas and Audrey Kallberg, and then holding on to hold off a resilient South Ridge team in a thrilling, nerve-wracking and emotional Section 7A semifinal.

The defending section champion Wolves survived and advanced, downing the Panthers, 23-25, 25-23, 25-20, 23-25 and 15-11 before a raucous audience at the new Rock Ridge school near Virginia.

Ely (25-5) now moves on to meet Floodwood, which survived a five-set thriller of its own against North Woods, in Saturday’s 6 p.m. final.

It’s rematch of last year’s 7A title tilt won by the Wolves, but it nearly was derailed by South Ridge, which faced Ely in the section semifinals for a third straight year.

The Wolves went through the entire year without losing a set to a 7A foe, but that changed in the opener Wednesday as the Panthers erased a 17-10 deficit to pull out a narrow win.

South Ridge also wiped out a 9-2 gap in the second and clawed back to lead, and it was clear the Wolves were in for a fight.

“It took us a while to find our groove,” said Wognum. “We knew it would be a really good match and we knew they would come to play and that they wanted it after the after last two years. It took us awhile to figure some things out offensively and we had to adjust some things.”

Penke led the Wolves’ offense with 18 kills and South Ridge stepped up its defense to limit Ely’s top hitter - junior Lilli Rechichi - to 14.

Yet the Wolves got a boost when they needed it from freshman Audrey Kallberg, who reached double digits with 11 kills.

“She was on fire,” said Wognum. “They figured out our middles in the first set and shut us down for awhile and we had to adjust.  We had to do some different things on offense and Audrey stepped up when we needed.”

South Ridge rode the hitting of outside hitter Kataia Klemensen and Svea Snickers to rally and take the opening set.

In the second, an Ely lead evaporated and the Wolves had to fight to pull out a win, scoring the last two points after South Ridge came back to tie things at 23.

The third set turned on Penke’s serving.

While the senior standout reached double digits again in kills, she had four aces during a 7-0 run that turned a three-point deficit to a 14-10 Ely lead.

The Panthers would get as close as two points but never came all the way back and the Wolves closed with a 6-3 run to win by five.

But hopes for a four-game victory were dashed, even after a spirited Ely comeback.

The Wolves trailed 17-14 but tied it at 21 on a Rechichi kill.

Ely led 23-22 after the Wolves wisely let an errant South Ridge serve go out of bounds, but the Panthers called time out.

With their season on the line, they came back with three straight points to move the matchup on to a winner-take-all fifth.

“We haven’t had a game like that all year,” said Wognum. “We needed it, but it’s exciting to have a game like that when a lot is at stake.”

Ely’s fast start was key and the Wolves got a boost from Thomas, who had at least three of her eight kills in the final set.

South Ridge had one last gasp and got to within two points at 12-10, but Ely responded and closed things out.

Penke finished with 18 kills, eight digs and six aces, and Rechichi had 17 digs and a couple of aces to go with her 14 kills.

Kallberg recorded a double-double and wound up with 11 kills and 16 digs, while Thomas finished with eight kills, nine digs and an ace.

Freshmen Charlotte Hegman (four kills) and Amelia Penke (16 digs) also had strong contributions while senior setter Sarah Visser distributed the ball and wound up with a match-high 57 set assists.

The win clears the way for the rematch with Floodwood.  Ely downed the Polar Bears in two sets in a weekend tournament  battle three weeks ago.

“We are really excited,” said Wognum. “They have a couple of athletic players that hopefully we can come out right away and block. We’re ready.”

The winner moves on to the State Class A Tournament, which starts Thursday and runs through Saturday at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.

Ely placed sixth in the Class A tournament a year ago.

• The Wolves moved on to the 7A semifinals with a 25-14, 25-10, 25-11 thrashing of Chisholm, in a quarterfinal contest held Oct. 27 at the Memorial Gymnasium.

Hannah Penke recorded 11 kills in the victory while Rechichi and Clare Thomas finished with eight each.

Kallberg had four while Visser led with 28 set assist and four ace serves.

Amelia Penke had four aces and Hegman notched three kills for the winners.

On defense, Hannah Penke (17), Kallberg (11) and Thomas (10) reached double digits in digs.

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