Panthers incredible season stopped short of state

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The best season in St. Croix Central volleyball history finished one win short of the Panthers' ultimate goal.

St. Croix Central won its first 29 matches of the season, putting them in Saturday's WIAA Division 2 sectional championship match at Merrill. Central and Merrill were both number one seeds in their regional bracket, so this was a clash of two titanic programs. On Saturday, Merrill was able to gain the upper hand, defeating Central in four sets. Merrill was one of the four Division 2 teams to qualify for the WIAA state tournament in Green Bay this week.

The Panthers were mentally ready for the match, taking a 5-2 lead in the opening set. This set was close the entire way, being tied at 22-22, before Merrill was able to win 25-23. That loss seemed to stagger the Panthers a bit. They fell behind 8-3 in the second set. They did come back, getting as close as 18-15, but missed serves and other mistakes led to a 25-18 loss.

The third set was the Panthers' best. They stepped out to a 7-2 lead and maintained a safe lead throughout the set to win 25-19.

The fourth set featured both teams playing at their best. There were a number of long points and incredible saves. But in the middle of the set the Panthers ran into a cold stretch and Merrill was able to build a 14-8 lead. The Panthers clawed back, getting as close as 23-21, before Merrill got the final two points of the night.

Central was led by the team's two standout outside hitters, Abbie Widiker and Katie Koerper. They combined for 28 kills in the match. Mary Buckel led the team with 17 digs and Katherine Cottrell led the team with three solo blocks.

Central coach Mindy Widiker said the Panthers knew they would need a flawless effort to defeat Merrill, but the team wasn't at its sharpest in every aspect of the game.

"We had our chances," Widiker said. "We had opportunities we let slip away. When you face good teams you can't make mistakes."

To get to the sectional final, the Panthers had to win at Rice Lake last Thursday. They were able to capture that win in four sets. Central won the opening set 25-21, but Rice Lake took the second set by the same score. Central came back for another 25-21 win in the third set. The fourth set had a bit of a surreal feel to it. The Panthers jumped out to a 20-5 lead, but couldn't finish it off. Rice Lake got back within 24-22 before the Panthers could finally get the final point to earn their ticket to Merrill.

Coach Widiker said the inability to close out the fourth set took some of the enjoyment out of the win.

"We won, but I don't think they were excited, knowing they need to put a team away," she said.

Koerper and Widiker again led the team's attack, combining for 33 kills. Setters Karlee Martinez and Kalli Cress combined for 37 assists. Serving was one of the team's best assets. Claire Frankiewicz served up five aces, with Widiker getting four and Buckel three. Buckel also led the team with 15 digs.