Wolves leave their prints in St Paul
by Tom Coombe
When the Class A state volleyball tournament was seeded, the Ely Timberwolves didn’t crack the top-five and their unbeaten record was largely overlooked.
A week later, nobody in Class A volleyball was overlooking the Wolves.
In the span of three days, the Wolves took a set from and gave the defending state champions a scare, followed up with the program’s first-ever state tournament win, and were on the short end of a state consolation championship thriller.
The Wolves wound up sixth in the Class A state tournament, ended a storybook season with a school-record 30 wins and perhaps most of all - put Ely volleyball on the statewide map during the course of a dramatic state tournament run at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.
“We ended our season undefeated, we went into the state tournament undefeated and that’s not something many teams get to say,” said head coach Megan Wognum. “To finish with a 30-2 record is just phenomenal. I think even just going into the banquet people looked at us differently, it was cool to see us make our mark.”
The Wolves, who were backed by a huge following of current and former Elyites in St. Paul, were decided underdogs against private school Mayer Lutheran in the Nov. 10 Class A quarterfinals.
The Crusaders prevailed, but not before a second set stumble that had the Wolves thinking about a historic upset.
Just a year earlier, Mayer Lutheran knocked out Section 7A champion South Ridge in less than an hour, winning one of the sets in a whopping 25-4 rout.
The Crusaders had to battle to down the Wolves, pulling out a 25-15, 24-26, 25-12, 25-11 decision.
“I think they came in expecting to blow us out and we gave them a run for their money,” said Wognum.
Ely was within four points midway through the opener before Mayer Lutheran closed it with a 10-4 run.
In the second set, the Wolves fought back, with a 7-1 run in the middle opening up a 16-13 lead, punctuated by a kill from junior Hannah Penke.
The Crusaders rallied to take a 23-22 lead, but Ely wouldn’t be denied.
A kill by Penke warded off a potential set point, and the Wolves scored two points on Lilli Rechichi’s serve to take the 26-24 wins.
“When we took a set from Mayer Lutheran it was a moment of success,” said Wognum. “I always think we have a chance and no matter the situation they’re put in, these girls surprise you, but to be able to take a set against a team that didn’t lose a set in the whole state tournament last year says a lot about this team.”
The second set may have been a wakeup call of sorts for the Crusaders, who bombarded the Wolves with a multi-pronged attack led by senior Gabrielle Wacholz.
Wacholz had a match-high 15 kills including six in the third set, when the Crusaders bolted out to a 12-3 lead and never looked back.
The Wolves fought the Crusaders to a near standoff for much of the fourth set, trailing 11-9, but Mayer Lutheran rattled off 10 of the next 11 points to take control.
Stella Maas and Madeline Guetzkow had 12 kills each for the winners and teammate Dina Martin had 10, while Isabelle Keaveny added 23 set assists.
Penke reached double digits in both kills (11) and digs (13) for the Wolves, while senior Rachel Coughlin had eight kills followed by her twin sister Kate (five) and Rechichi (four).
Sarah Visser had 16 set assists and 11 digs, while Madeline Kallberg also recorded double digits in both assists (10) and digs (17).
Kate Coughlin notched 13 digs.
The following afternoon, the Wolves were back on the court and went toe-to-toe with Pine River-Backus.
After the teams split the first two sets, the tide turned in the third when Ely fought off not one, not two, but three set points and pulled off a 27-25 win.
The fourth was all-Wolves and the 7A champs recorded a 25-17, 18-25, 27-25, 25-12 win over the winners of Section 5A.
Ely’s 30th win didn’t come easily, but the Wolves showed a dogged determination, bouncing back from injuries and bad breaks and even a scoring error.
“We are ruthless,” said Wognum. “If they tumble, they just get back up. They love this sport and will do anything to play.”
Visser, who had 20 sets and 13 digs added “I think they just got in our heads a little bit,” in regards to the opening game defeat.
The Wolves were battle-tested and ready for the consolation round, she said.
“The first time got to be overwhelming,” said Visser. “I think yesterday we were all nervous. Today we had already been here. There was no need to be nervous anymore and we pushed through.”
Led by all-stater Hannah Barchus, who had 16 kills, the Tigers overcame a first-set hiccup and controlled much of the second.
That set the stage for a third set donnybrook that essentially decided the match.
Ely trailed 15-12 and 16-13, but the Wolves fought back to tie it and seemingly take the lead, but official scorers missed a Wolves point that was captured by those doing the live statistics.
But the official book stood, and the Tigers regained momentum and were a point away from victory at 24-21.
Kills by Rachel Coughlin and Kallberg kept the Wolves alive and a Barchus hit that went out tied the game.
Barchus bounced back with her sixth kill of the set, resulting in a 25-24 lead but Penke countered with a kill that tied the game.
Ely surged and won the next two points and the Tigers seemed shell-shocked.
The fourth set went Ely’s way.
Back-to-back kills by Rechichi gave the Wolves an early 5-2 edge and they were on their way.
Ely fired on all cylinders, with Kate Coughlin recording two kills during an eight-point run, all on Rachel Coughlin’s serve, that put things away.
Penke led with 19 kills, but Rechichi had a breakout game on the state tournament stage with 12 kills and 10 digs.
Kate Coughlin had nine kills, Rachel was next with six, while Visser and Kallberg combined for 37 set assists
Sophomore Clare Thomas came off the bench to record three kills as well, while Penke and Kallberg combined for seven ace serves.
On defense, Rachel Coughlin and Kallberg both led with 15 digs, while Visser, Kate Coughlin, Penke and Rechichi all reached double digs.
“To be able to win a game at state was a super rewarding feeling,” said Wognum. “To be able to win and then get to play volleyball on that last Saturday was a very rewarding feeling.”
Kate Coughlin added that “it’s been an amazing experience. There definitely was a learning curve. A new court, new surroundings. I think we as a team just had to have a positive mindset.”
The win ensured that the Wolves would be one of six teams in Class A volleyball to play on Saturday, and Badger-Greenbush-Middle River, the tournament’s number four seed, awaited in the Saturday morning consolation final.
The Gators, who were upset by Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa in the quarterfinal round, shook off a first-set loss and pulled out a 25-27, 25-18, 25-15, 24-26 win, but the Wolves were a point away from taking the contest to a decisive fifth set.
A Kate Coughlin kill gave the Wolves a 24-23 edge in the fourth, but Ely was unable to close it out.
Jade Reese’s match-high 19th kill was her biggest - it tied the set at 24 and the Gators seized on the turn in momentum.
Two points later they secured the match and the state consolation trophy.
“I think we came into this game where it was our fifth day away from home and we were really tired,” said Wognum. “We still pushed through and gave ourselves a chance.”
Ely also had a bit of misfortune, as Rechichi, who had seven kills, went down with a knee injury in the third set and was unable to return.
BGMR, which finished 32-2, had an array of hitters for the Wolves to contend with.
McKenzie Dahl had 13 kills while teammates Kinsey Hanson and Riley Gust both hit double digits.
Ely overcame them in the opening set, as a kill by Penke followed by a BGMR error gave the Wolves the two-point win.
In the second, the Gators led by as many as eight points and Reese had five of the team’s 15 kills in the set.
Rechichi went out with the Wolves trailing 10-9 in the third and BGMR pounced, scoring nine of the next 11 points and never looking back.
Ely needed to counter in the fourth and it did, taking its largest lead on a Thomas kill that put the Wolves ahead 20-16.
The Gators called timeout and scored the next four points, three on Ely errors.
Ely rebounded and led 23-20 before BGMR rallied to take the contest and bring the Wolves’ season to a close.
Rachel Coughlin led the Wolves’ offense with 11 kills, with Penke notching 10 for the day and Kate Coughlin finishing with nine.
Rechichi (seven), Kallberg (five) and Thomas (three) followed.
Both Visser and Kallberg finished with 20 set assists, while Kate Coughlin had a team-high 17 digs, followed by Penke with 16 and both Visser and Rachel Coughlin with nine.
BGMR’s potent hitting attack was on display as the Gators finished with 66 kills in the contest compared with 45 for Ely.