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Conference champion and top seed

The St. Croix Central volleyball team posed for a group photo after the Panthers clinched the outright Middle Border Championship with a win at Somerset on Oct. 10. Dave Newman / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
St. Croix Central middle hitter Katherine Cottrell goes up for a hit attempt in last week's match at Somerset. Dave Newman / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

It was a long climb to the top.

The St. Croix Central volleyball team completed its incredible climb to the top of the Middle Border Conference standings when the Panthers clinched the outright MBC championship with a win at Somerset on Oct. 10.

The Panthers finished with a 7-0 record in the MBC after defeating Somerset 25-21, 25-9, 25-15. This is the first conference championship in 20 years for the St. Croix Central volleyball program.

The undefeated Panthers are now into the WIAA Division 2 tournament season. The Panthers received the top seed in the Division 2 sectional bracket. They open tournament play at home at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19. They will face the winner of the Tuesday, Oct. 17, match between Somerset and Osceola. The winner of Thursday's match will play again Saturday, Oct. 21, in the regional final match.

The win at Somerset came the way many of the Panthers' victories have come this season, with strength and balance. The first set was an excellent test for the Panthers, with the score tied 21-21 before the Panthers scored the final four points.

"In the first set I felt they were a little nervous," Central coach Mindy Widiker said. "After the first set, they got rolling."

Like most teams, Somerset couldn't compete with the breadth of Central's attack. Outside hitters Katie Koerper and Abbie Widiker again led the attack. Koerper finished with 12 kills and Widiker with 11 kills. They both faced a concerted blocking plan from Somerset. So the Panther setters sent more balls in the direction of middle hitter Katherine Cottrell and she was able to score with 10 kills. Cottrell also led the Panthers with three solo blocks.

Senior setter Kalli Cress was at the top of her game, with 23 assists, Karlee Martinez finished with 11 assists.

The Panthers generated 10 service aces, but also had 10 errors, most of them reflecting the team's nervousness in the first set. The one area that didn't waver was serve receiving. The Panthers only had three errors all night in this area. Mary Buckel led the Panther defense with 13 digs.

It was just two years ago that the Panthers finished at the bottom of the MBC standings with a 1-6 record. Coach Widiker said the girls were excited to earn the conference championship, but they tried to keep the title pursuit in context during the season.

"We took it one match at a time," Widiker said. "They didn't want to make it too big. We didn't want emotions to take over."

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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