One of the more prestigious volleyball tournaments in northwest Wisconsin each fall is the Grantsburg Invitational, which is usually won by the home team.
But it wasn't won by the Pirates this year. On Saturday, the St. Croix Central volleyball team went to Grantsburg and won four straight matches to earn the championship trophy in the 2017 edition of the tournament.
The Panthers didn't lose a set in their first three rounds of the tournament. They defeated Mercer 25-13, 25-11, Turtle Lake 25-17, 25-19, and Spring Valley 25-9, 25-16.
That set up a showdown between the Panthers and Pirates in the championship match. Grantsburg has been to the WIAA state tournament 13 times through the years and its program is considered a measuring stick for all the teams in the area.
Central played an outstanding opening set, winning 25-19. Grantsburg's excellent defense took hold in the second set, resulting in a 25-7 Pirate win. The third set was intense and dramatic, with Central pulling out a 15-12 win.
"It was a fun match," said Central coach Mindy Widiker, who had her share of matches against Grantsburg when she coached at Webster. "There were lots of highs and lows. It didn't come easy."
There were strong patterns that led to the Panthers' success throughout the day on Saturday. One was a strong net attack. Led by Katie Koerper and Abbie Widiker, the Panthers stayed on the offensive throughout the day. The same can be said about the Panthers' serving. In the first three matches, the Panthers totalled 26 ace serves.
The Panthers were equally effective in defense. That showed the most against Turtle Lake, where the team totalled 22 digs in two sets.
Those patterns were also in place when the Panthers won a dual match against Spring Valley last Tuesday, 25-19, 25-16, 25-19. The Panthers' serving was positively wicked in that win. They put away 16 ace serves, including five from Widiker and three each from Koerper, Kalli Cress and Claire Frankiewicz.
The volleyball season hits high gear this Thursday with the start of the Middle Border Conference schedule. And it doesn't get any tougher than the Panthers' opening draw. They will play at Ellsworth in Thursday's opening round. Both teams have potent hitting attacks and there's a small margin for error when two of the MBC favorites meet.
"It comes down to basic ball control, who can do the best job of passing," predicted coach Mindy Widiker.
The Panthers will also be in action on Saturday, playing in a tournament at Baldwin-Woodville. The Panthers resume their MBC schedule next Tuesday with a home match against New Richmond.