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Panthers play their way to sectionals

The improvement of Katherine Cottrell (14) as a hitting threat in the middle has broadened the attack for the St. Croix Central volleyball team this season. Dave Newman / RiverTown Multimedia

This was an incredible weekend for St. Croix Central athletics and the Panther volleyball team capped that success on Saturday night by playing its way into the WIAA Division 2 sectional tournament.

The Panther volleyball team remained unbeaten this season by defeating Osceola and Ellsworth in the Division 2 playoffs last week. The Panthers faced two sturdy tests from familiar Middle Border Conference opponents, but withstood both of the tests. Osceola put up an excellent defensive effort, but Central was able to win 25-21, 25-21, 28-26 on Thursday. Back on their home court Saturday, the Panthers needed four sets to defeat Ellsworth. Central won the opening two sets 25-22 and 25-19. Ellsworth showed its strength in the third set to win 25-15, but Central showed why it hasn't been defeated all season, charging back to take the fourth set, 25-15.

This advances Central to the sectional semifinals on Thursday, Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. The match will be played at Rice Lake, which will be the Panthers' opponent. Rice Lake gets the home match because the WIAA decided to assign predetermined locations for the sectional round and Rice Lake had been assigned this match before the pairings were known.

The winner of Thursday's match will play in the Division 2 sectional championship match at Merrill at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28. The opponent in that match will be the winner of Thursday's match between Mosinee and Merrill.

Central coach Mindy Widiker said Rice Lake features a much taller lineup than what the Panthers possess. She said it will be a challenge for the Panther hitters to direct their hits around the blocks so Central's attack can continue to score effectively.

Ellsworth put up a strong blocking effort but the Panthers were able to deal with it effectively. With Katie Koerper finishing with 16 kills and Abbie Widiker with 14, Central's offense dealt with Ellsworth's blocking.

Coach Widiker said her team showed some nerves in the opening stages of this match, falling behind 10-2 in the opening set. After the Panthers got through that rough patch of serve receiving, they settled into a pattern of success. Coach Widiker said it was unusual to see the team showing any signs of nervousness.

"They're handling things pretty well. They get excited, but not overly so. They do a pretty good job of keeping it in perspective," she said.

The Panthers have developed depth over the course of the season. When help was needed to handle Ellsworth's serves, the bench came through. Eleven different girls recorded at least one dig in the match, led by Widiker with 17. The attack ran smoothly, with setters Kalli Cress and Karlee Martinez both finishing with 18 assists. Cress also led the team's serving attack with three aces. Katherine Cottrell had seven blocks in the match.

The Osceola match showed off both team's defensive skills, resulting in a number of long points. The Panther defense again shined, with Widiker posting 13 digs and libero Mary Buckel getting 12 digs. Widiker and Koerper again led the hitting attack, combining for 32 kills.

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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