For Wolves, 28 is great
by Tom Coombe
One could understand why the Ely Timberwolves may have been a bit leery, if not outright nervous before Wednesday’s Section 7A semifinal matchup with defending champion South Ridge.
After all, the last time the high school volleyball team had dropped a match it was 52 weeks earlier, on the same floor in Hibbing, and against the same foe in South Ridge.
But those worries ended early, and the Timberwolves scored sweet revenge.
Getting off to a stronger than usual start, Ely unleashed its arsenal of hitters against the Panthers and never looked back, scoring a 25-18, 25-15, 25-15 sweep before a nearly full house at Hibbing’s Lincoln Gymnasium.
The win, Ely’s 28th straight without a defeat this fall, put the Wolves into the Section 7A finals for the first time in program history.
Saturday, the Wolves will meet Floodwood, the top seed out of the south half of the section, at 4 p.m. in Hermantown with both the 7A title and a state tournament berth on the line.
Ely, which squeaked out a regular season win against South Ridge during a weekend tournament, used an uncharacteristic fast start to put the semifinal clash away early.
“I definitely feel like we were more ready to play today than we were at any point this year,” said head coach Megan Wognum. “We came out and found our momentum right away and we had kind of struggled with that in the past, but tonight we were really on and it was nice to see everybody coming out swinging.”
Four Wolves registered at least seven kills in the contest, with junior Hannah Penke leading the way with 13.
It seemed as if whenever the Panthers contained one Ely hitter, another filled the gap and fired away at the Panthers defense.
Ely trailed 4-3 early on in the first set but scored four straight points, with sophomore Lilli Rechichi delivering an ace.
South Ridge got as close as 14-13 but Ely scored the next six points, five on junior Sarah Visser’s serve, to take control.
It was more of the same in the second, with two powerful kills by senior Rachel Coughlin and an ace by fellow senior Madeline Kallberg fueling a 9-1 run that built a 12-4 Ely edge.
South Ridge would get no closer than four points the rest of the set and another Rechichi ace helped close things out.
Penke took over at times in the third, driving home kills from the left side that found seams in the back row of the South Ridge defense.
Back-to-back Penke kills gave Ely a 6-4 edge and the Wolves wouldn’t look back.
A Kate Coughlin ace made it 19-10 and South Ridge, despite burning a pair of timeouts, could do little to slow the Wolves’ momentum.
The Wolves piled up numbers with Penke finishing with a double-double, notching 13 digs to go with her 13 kills.
Rachel Coughlin had 10 kills, four digs, two blocks and two aces while Kallberg filled the stat sheet up as well. She reached double digits in set assist (13) and digs (10), while adding seven kills and four ace serves.
Rechichi was a force at the net with seven kills and added four aces, and Visser again distributed the ball, winding up with 19 set assists to go with seven digs.
Kate Coughlin recorded 18 digs with five assists and senior libero Courtney Eilrich was solid at the back of Ely’s defense, coming up with 11 digs for the night.
It was South Ridge who knocked Ely out in a five-set marathon in last year’s semifinals, but the Wolves were a different team this year with the pressure on.
“There’s always jitters, going into the semifinals and playing the same team we lost to last year,” said Wognum. “But I feel we had good energy and some good practices. The girls are really excited and I like their nerves are going away and the confidence is coming through. I am making sure they are enjoying the process and they are working really hard in practice.”
The win sets up a title game showdown with Floodwood, which shook off a first set defeat and rattled off three sets in a row to take down Nashwauk-Keewatin in Wednesday’s first semifinal.
Ely beat the Polar Bears (23-8) in three sets during the Mesabi East Tournament, but Wognum said she is taking nothing for granted as the Wolves go for a win that would send them to St. Paul Thursday for the first round of the State Class A Tournament.
“They’re really scrappy,” Wognum said of Floodwood. “We have a lot to do. We’re going to review some game film and make sure we know what they are doing on offense and defense. There are some things that we can utilize.”
• In the Oct. 28 quarterfinals, the Wolves downed North Woods 25-22, 25-19, 25-16 before about 500 fans at the high school gymnasium. It was widely believed to be the largest audience to ever witness a high school volleyball game in Ely.
Visser (24) and Kallberg (18) combined for 42 set assists as Ely caught fire late in the first set and recovered from a slow start.
Penke had 13 kills and 14 digs, while Kate Coughlin came up with nine kills and 13 digs.
Kallberg (eight kills), Rechichi (seven) and Rachel Coughlin (five) all took their turns at the net for the winners.
Kallberg and Rechichi had three blocks each and Eilrich finished with four digs.
“North Woods always puts up a good fight with us when we play them,” Wognum said after the match. “Tonight was no different. They showed up to play and forced us to be on our toes tonight. We still have plenty to work on going forward.”