Volleyball Special Section: Wolves come home with hardware
by Tom Coombe
Of more than 400 high school volleyball teams in Minnesota, only a dozen are fortunate to end their season with a victory.
The Ely Timberwolves are in that elite company, after rebounding from a first-round state tournament defeat with back-to-back wins, including a three-set sweep of West Central Area to claim the State Class A consolation trophy.
Saturday’s 25-20, 25-15, 25-21 victory closed the book on a second straight storybook season for the Wolves, who followed a sixth-place state tournament finish a year ago with another trip south to St. Paul.
This time, the Wolves came home with state tournament hardware and the consolation title.
The stage was set Saturday morning at the Xcel Energy Center as Ely (28-6) found itself in the same spot it was 52 weeks earlier - playing for the consolation championship.
But unlike a year ago, when the Wolves fell in four sets, they all but dominated West Central Area.
It started with defense, as Ely held all-tournament WCA hitter Mya Foslien to 11 kills - out of 50 total attacks.
“We knew that (Foslien) on the outside would come out and swing hard,” said Ely Head Coach Megan Wognum. “We had a solid block on and we timed it and aligned it correctly. We knew we could shut her down and she did get shut down coming out.
Ely and WCA played to a 13-all standoff early in the opening set, but the Knights’ Jaclynn Nelson set a hit out of bounds, and Wolves senior Hannah Penke recorded back-to-back kills for a 16-13 Wolves lead.
After the Knights closed the gap to one, it was junior Lilli Rechichi’s turn. She recorded a pair of kills as the Wolves stretched their lead and freshman Charlotte Hegman closed things out.
Other than a brief mid-set lull, the second was all-Ely.
Penke had four quick kills as the Wolves jumped out to a 7-3 lead and an Audrey Kallberg ace made it 12-6.
The Knights got back to within two at 14-12, but Ely dominated the rest of the way for a double-digit lead.
Ely and its faithful could taste victory and the Wolves jumped out to a 7-2 lead.
West Central followed with its best extended play of the morning, grabbing a 17-13 lead on a Macy Grocsz ace serve.
But the Wolves, who dropped on set in the consolation semifinals, would respond with a run that resulted in the sweep and their consolation trophy.
A kill by Audrey Thomas ended the WCA run and the Wolves then rattled off five straight points with senior Sarah Visser on serve, taking a 19-17 lead.
The Knights remained within two at 23-21 but Penke’s 17th kill of the day set up game point, and Thomas delivered with the set-clinching hit, setting of a Wolves celebration at center court.
Within minutes, the Wolves collected the consolation trophy and posed for team photos as a good-sized Ely delegation cheered on.
Penke, who was named to the all-tournament team, had a double-double with 17 kills and 22 digs.
Thomas finished off an impressive state tournament with a 10-kill day and finished with 13 digs as well.
Rechichi was next with nine kills and Hegman wound up with five, and Visser had a match-high 34 set assists to go with three kills.
Hegman (12) and Visser (11) also reached double digits in digs and Rechichi contributed eight.
Mya Foslien had 11 kills and Madison Fagre finished with eight.
Ely got to the consolation final by downing Badger-Greenbush-Middle River in a rematch of last season’s consolation final.
After a first-set hiccup, the Wolves rebounded and won 23-23, 25-17, 25-18, 25-13.
Ely’s attack was multi-pronged, but Penke and Thomas led the way with an astounding 19 kills each.
Wognum said the Wolves came out with renewed focus after a disappointing first-round loss to number-two seed and eventual runner-up Mayer Lutheran.
“We knew that if we lost we were all done on Friday,” said Wognum. “We all made the choice that we had to leave it on the floor. Our mentality was a little more sound than it was on Thursday, and it was quite beautiful to watch.”
Nevertheless, Ely had to come from behind, as a 23-22 lead evaporated in the opening set and the Gators prevailed by two.
“I think after the first set it just took us awhile to warm up,” said Wognum. “We knew we could definitely win. And it is hard coming out after a quick loss and then losing that first set. I’m proud that we were able to overcome that first set loss. I thought we made some adjustments defensively that we needed to make and I was so impressed with how everyone showed up to compete and gave it their all.”
The second set was tied at six when the Wolves took over.
Thomas played a key role, scoring on a series of cross-court hits as the Wolves went on a 10-1 run to lead by nine.
“Audrey had a much better night,” said Wognum. “Both Audrey and Hannah were really swinging to get 19 kills. They weren’t giving us much of an outside block and we had to utilize that as best as we could.”
Ely went on to win the second set 25-17 and went on a 16-7 run to start the third, forcing the Gators to burn both timeouts.
BGMR answered with six straight points but the Wolves maintained their composure.
A Penke kill made it 20-15 and the Wolves didn’t look back.
The fourth set was a near carbon-copy of the third.
It was 6-6 when the Wolves snared nine of the next 10 points.
Thomas had three kills in the run and seven over all in the set.
Back-to-back kills by Penke gave the Wolves a 21-11 lead and fittingly it was a Thomas kill that ended the contest.
Thomas had 19 kills, six digs and a couple of ace serves, while Penke added 11 digs and three set assists to go with her 19 kills.
Rechichi and Hegman added four kills each and Kallberg paced the strong Ely defense with 18 digs.
Visser notched 43 set assists, her high for the tournament, and she had 14 digs and two kills as well.
As a team, Ely finished with 10 ace serves.
The Gators’ Kenzie Dahl had 17 kills and teammate Teagan Landsrud was next with 10.
In the opening round, the Wolves let opportunity slip by in the first set.
Kills by Kallberg and Rechichi and a misfire by Mayer Lutheran gave Ely a 21-17 edge and put the heavily-favored Crusaders in some trouble.
But Mayer Lutheran regained its composure after a timeout and scored eight of the next 10 points to take the set and control of the match.
“I think I said ‘buck up, let’s go, let’s get focused,’” said Crusaders Head Coach Joelle Grimsley. “We came out a little bit cold and they were on fire. We just had to keep digging, digging digging. We were a little bit tense and it was good to see them fight through that.”
Mayer Lutheran had a balanced hitting attack and took advantage of Ely errors in the second, turning a 5-4 lead into a 14-6 advantage.
The Wolves would get no closer than seven points the rest of the set.
Mayer Lutheran was firing on all cylinders and overcame a 7-2 Wolves run to start the third.
The Crusaders first lead was at 14-13 and they didn’t look back, finishing the game on a 17-3 run.
Marley Martin had five of her game-high 15 kills in the third and Courtney Tuttle finished with eight for the contest.
Penke led Ely with seven while Kallberg and Rechichi contributed six apiece and Thomas had five.
Visser had 19 set assists.
“I am very proud of our team,” Wognum said after the contest. “Just being here is a very cool experience and being able to compete with these top teams is something we should be proud of. It’s hard to fight when you’re down and we haven’t had a lot of experience with that this season.”
“I think this was probably one of the best teams,” said Penke.