HERMANTOWN—Through two sets, things looked a little shaky for the Ely volleyball team in their Section 7A championship matchup with Floodwood.
The Timberwolves took the first set 25-22 but fell in the second by the same score, chasing the Polar Bears from behind the entire frame.
But everything changed for them in the third set.
A long rally early tilted things in favor of Ely as they sprinted to the finish line, dominating both the third and fourth sets, grabbing a 3-1 (25-22, 22-25, 25-10, 25-15) win over Floodwood to send the Timberwolves to the state tournament.
The Section 7A crown captured, the 29-0 Ely Timberwolves accomplished one of their biggest goals of the season. Now, they look forward to their next biggest challenge at the Class A State Tournament beginning on Thursday in St. Paul.
Ely head coach Megan Wognum said her team turned on the gas in the third set and never looked back in order to make it all possible.
“The difference was that we were playing together a little bit more than we were in that second set,” Wognum said. “We came out of that second set and we were saying ‘that isn’t us.’ So we were able to adjust and come together a little bit more.”
In the third, Ely broke a 4-4 tie with a big kill from Hannah Penke that shifted things dramatically. That point was the first of a 14-1 for the Wolves that took Floodwood out of the game. The Polar Bears took a teamout trailing 9-4 and Wognum told her squad that they were figuring things out.
“I told them when they came into that first timeout ‘there you are, I really missed you guys.’ We were coming back ready to play and it was really nice to see them come back from something that can shake a team.”
The rest of the match felt like a foregone conclusion. The stellar offensive attack, anchored by Penke, didn’t miss a beat throughout the final two sets as Ely made their state dreams a reality.
Back in the first set, the two squads fought through a back-and-forth frame that saw Ely grab a late lead to get on the board. Floodwood got things rolling with the first of many kills from freshman Kenzie Kiminski, but Ely’s Madeline Kallberg responded with a kill of her own.
Kiminski kept Floodwood moving but Penke added two more kills while Rachel Coughlin got in on the action with a block and a kill.
The two teams fought to ties at 9, 10, 13 and 16 before it looked like Floodwood might run away with it. Darby Autio got a tip point to make it a three point game, 19-16, but Ely fought back with Rachel Coughlin adding a kill and a tip point to knot it at 20.
Kate Coghlin found a kill to force another tie at 21, while the Polar Bears committed an error to tie things again at 21. Two more kills from Kallberg gave Ely set point. Kiminski made it 24-22 with her own attack, but Ely sophomore Lilli Rechichi found a big kill in the middle to take the set, 25-22.
Floodwood took an early lead in the second set and never let the Wolves feel comfortable. Kiminski kept swinging and found more kills for her squad while the Coughlins, Rechichi and Penke kept Ely within three points for most of the set.
Ely managed to make it a one-point game at 18-17, but an Autio kill, an ace from Kylie Hart and another kill from Kiminski pushed the Polar Bears four points in front. Ely got within two at 24-22 thanks to a Rechichi kill, but the Wolves couldn’t hang on as Floodwood knotted things up 25-25.
That third set, however, was when it looked like the Wolves had it all figured out. After the long rally at 4-4, Ely went up 8-4. At that point in the set, half of their points had come off of blocks with Penke, Rachel and Kate Coughlin and Rechichi all getting in Floodwood’s way. Even the lucky bounces off the block seemed to go in Ely’s favor as the steamroll began.
“We were struggling with blocking so we had to make some adjustments,” Wognum said. “We moved our block a little bit inside more and we made sure we were finishing those points off.”
The revitalized block seemed to make things click. A few more Penke attacks and an ace from Kallberg forced a timeout from the Polar Bears at 18-5, but there wasn’t much left for Floodwood in the third.
Up 21-10, Ely closed out the set with four straight kills: Starting with Rachel Coughlin then to her sister Kate, one from Penke and then the final point of the set from Kate Coughlin.
There was no question how the match would end once Ely came out for the fourth set. After a Floodwood error, the Ely block was back in full effect with Rechichi putting one down to make it 2-0. Ely sprinted out to the 7-2 lead with a Rechichi kill forcing another Polar Bears timeout.
The Timberwolves setters then kept feeding Penke, who seemed confident enough to find a whole from anywhere on the court. The junior racked up the late kills with the Coughlins, Kallberg and Rechichi helping push Ely towards the finish line.
Up 23-13, a kill from Penke and one final swing from Rachel Coughlin ended the match, sending Ely to St. Paul.
Confident at every spot on the court, Penke came alive as Ely’s star of the match. A transfer this year from Washington state, Wognum said the addition of the talented junior changed the entire team right from the beginning of the season.
“She came into our team this year and brought more than just skill. … She’s brought a sense of community to our team that really has changed us. She’s just an all-around good player. She can change our team dynamic. She brings more than just skill. She brings passion. She brings endurance. She brings everything we need as a team to pull us together.”
Aside from their star-studded front row, the Wolves benefited from a back row that rarely let a ball hit the floor. Libero Courtney Eilrich anchored the back row and whichever players joined her in the rotation seemed to keep the pace moving.
“I’m so proud of them. This team is scrappy. The defense is solid and it’s been a joy to watch them progress throughout the season.”
As they look towards St. Paul in the coming, Wognum says her team is ready for another rest.
“It’s almost like we start a new season. I said that when we came into playoffs. Our regular season was successful and we were moving on from that after we celebrated. Then we came into playoffs and now we’re moving into a new season which is the state tournament.
“They’re not done. They’ve still got work to do and they’re going to do great at the state tournament. I just know it.”
Ely’s first state tournament match is set for Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Time and opponent are yet to be determined.