HIBBING—For the Ely volleyball team, Wednesday night’s playoff matchup felt a little bit like déjà vu.
The Timberwolves saw their season end last year in the 7A semifinals to South Ridge. Playing Wednesday against that exact same team in the same building and same round of the tournament, Ely was looking to reverse its fortunes from a year ago.
The Timberwolves did just that, confidently sweeping the Panthers 3-0 (25-18, 25-15, 25-15) in a game where they took the early momentum and never let it go.
Ely head coach Megan Wognum said her team was ready to put this one away from the beginning and not let things get out of hand like they did a year ago.
“This was a game where we wanted to come in with a fresh mind,” Wognum said. “All the girls know what happened before but tonight they were ready to take on any challenge right from the start. We had it right away and that’s something we’ve been working on all season.
“Sometimes we struggle in the first set and then we have to pick it up from there. But tonight, these girls came ready to play.”
Playing with a roster full of talented juniors and seniors, it was the sophomore Lilli Rechichi that got Ely on the right foot, giving her team their first kill of the match to make it 2-2. The Panthers went up by a few on a couple of Timberwolves errors, but that didn’t stop them as they got back possession of the serve.
From there, Rechichi served up an ace before senior Rachel Coughlin won a tip point to make it 5-4. Madeline Kallberg, Kate Coughlin and Hannah Penke all added kills and Ely quickly made it an 11-6 game, forcing a South Ridge timeout.
Ely created more distance with two more kills from Rachel Coughlin, but the Panthers managed to close the gap to just one thanks to a run from Kaitaia Klemetsen, who picked up two blocks and a kill to help make it 14-13.
Rechichi and Kallberg found some holes to attack, however, and the Wolves lengthened their lead again, 20-13. From there, Kallberg, Penke and Rechichi found a few late attacks, put down some kills and helped give Ely the first set 25-18.
Ely had to get creative on the attack at times. Knowing the Wolves had plenty of attackers all over the court, the Panthers committed to a triple block that would give most teams trouble. But the Wolves attack didn’t slow early in the second with Kallberg, Rechichi and Rachel Coughlin collecting early kills to make it a 9-4 game.
After a timeout from Panthers head coach Brad Olesiak, Ely grabbed an eight-point lead thanks to an ace from Kallberg and a kill from Rachel Coughlin. A series of Ely errors allowed South Ridge to get to within three, 12-9, but Ely never let those strings of bad luck get them down.
After Rechichi served up an ace to make it 21-15, she added one more ace, Penke had a kill and Kallberg had a block to close out the second set, 25-15.
The Timberwolves Train didn’t slow down in the third set. South Ridge grabbed their last lead of the match at 4-3 after an Ely error, but that was as close as they could ever make it in the third. The varied offensive attack from Ely rarely missed. When the Panthers put up a strong attack of their own, the defense was there to back them up as they cruised in the third. Kate Coughlin put the match away with one final kill, 25-15.
Penke led the way with 13 kills for the Wolves. She added a block and 13 digs. Rachel Coughlin had 10 kills and two blocks while Rechichi and Kallberg had seven kills each. Rechichi added four aces and two blocks while Kallberg had two blocks, four aces and 10 digs.
Sarah Visser and Kallberg split the setting duties with 19 and 13 assists each. Kate Coughlin led the team in digs with 18. Courtney Eilrich chipped in with 11 digs.
After the game, Wognum compared Wednesday’s match to the first time these two teams played this season. The Wolves won 2-1 over the Panthers at the Rock Ridge tournament, but Wognum said it wasn’t pretty.
“When we played them, we were not our best selves and we learned that that’s okay. We had to learn some tough things and we grew a lot as a team. It was a hard day in general but it really helped us reset and refocus. We’re always looking for ways to improve so I think you can see that comparing the first game to tonight.”
The win sends Ely into Saturday’s section finals where they’ll take on Floodwood in Hermantown at 4 p.m. For a team that’s had plenty of regular season success over recent years, Wognum says her team is ready for the extra challenge that comes with a trip to state on the line.
“They’re so excited and so ready. I don’t know what else to say about this team except that they’re ready for this next one. They want that challenge and they want to see what it’s like to play in a game with a trip to state on the line. It’s very exciting for them.”
ESKO — The Eskomos ended the Raiders’ season with the 3-0, 25-21, 25-20, 25-12 victory in a Section 7AA semifinal game Wednesday.
Lexi Hammer led Greenway with 30 assists. Ava Johnson had 11 kills; Miranda Gernander seven kills; Kyra Williams seven kills and 21 digs; and Jocelyn Mikulich 23 digs.