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Panthers survive district title bout against Aggies; advance to regionals

November 2, 2018
Sue Sitter , Pierce County Tribune

Although top seed Rugby High had the "home team" title at the District 11 Volleyball Championships in Nedrose High's gym Monday night, their visitors from nearby Velva filled the bleachers with fans.

The Lady Panthers had brought plenty of their own, and when the game started, so did the cheering. Each point scored brought thunderous applause, foot stomping and chants. An electronic scoreboard on the gym wall flashed messages such as "Ace," "Good Block" and "Nice Kill."

Once in awhile, "Get Loud" appeared on the screen.

Article Photos

Lori Gronvold for the Tribune
Rugby’s Karsyn Hager (left, no. 5) and Kelly Swanson (no. 2) at the net in the final round of the District 11 Volleyball tournament Monday. The Panthers won 3-2 over the Velva Aggies for their fifth District title.

That message wasn't necessary.

When the Panthers' Maria Blessum attempted one of her deadly-accurate spikes, Velva's middle hitters raised their arms, blocking with fatal precision to score the first point of the game's first set. Explosive cheers shook the gym, and the din would last the rest of the evening.

After the Aggies jumped ahead with 4 unanswered points, the Panthers struck back, struggling to tie and lead the game, winning 25-23.

Fact Box

Panthers take home handful of honors

Three Rugby High varsity volleyball squad members were selected for the 2018 District 11 All District Team in a ceremony held immediately after the Lady Panthers won the championship game for the 5th consecutive year Monday.

The Rugby High representatives were sophomores Sarah and Brooke Blessum, and senior Maria Blessum.

Maria Blessum received the Senior Athlete of the Year Award as well.

All three girls said their focus is on Monday's Region 6 opening round game against Glenburn High's Panthers in Minot.

Maria said she hopes "to come out with a win, and that we play the best as we can as a team."

Although Maria graduates this year, she told the Tribune she'll always remember her time on the team, which includes her sister and two cousins, as "a lot of fun."

Maria's sister Sarah, who played on the JV squad last year, said she "learned a lot" this season, and she hoped to be on a championship-winning team again next year.

Cousin Brooke Blessum agreed, saying, "Hopefully, both of us can improve and work together. I want to work towards that, and just become a better team."

Brooke said her best skills are "probably hitting and blocking, because I'm in the front row."

Both sophomores said they looked forward to two more years in varsity volleyball "to just become a better team."

The Aggies stormed back in the second set, pulling ahead after matching the Panthers kill for kill, and capitalizing on Panther errors. A narrow Panther lead slipped away, and the set tied at 25-25. After a Panther serve went out of bounds, the Aggies pulled ahead to win the set, scoring 28 points to Rugby's 26.

Set #3 gave the Panthers redemption with a 25-14 win, but the Aggies weren't ready to surrender. Aggies Emma Passa and Rachel Mack blocked even more Panther kill attempts, with one causing the ball to ricochet into the bleachers. The Panthers climbed back to within one point, trailing 21-22 when they called time out. The Aggies stayed on track, however, and won the set by two points.

The Panthers roared back for a decisive 15-7 victory in set 5, nabbing the District 11 Championship for the 5th consecutive year.

"We needed to go to almost 5 to get into our groove and get playing," Coach Jessica Fritz told The Tribune after the game. "We came in with a big monkey on our back; everyone was just expecting us to (win easily). We were the favorite; we knew Velva could do anything, and they kept proving time and time again that they could."

Fritz likened the game to a "rollercoaster."

"We had our ups and downs, and Velva capitalized on our (mistakes), when we were down, they knew exactly what to do. We tried to play it safe a few times and not hit as hard as we should have. Velva just knew what to do. They're a great team; they're well-coached," Fritz said.

Rugby faces Glenburn at the Minot Municipal Auditorium Monday at 6 p.m.

Although Fritz noted the high-decibel atmosphere in the gym made communication difficult, "We needed this intense, loud, crazy gym to get us ready for the next game."

Panther Maria Blessum, who was voted Senior Athlete of 2018 that evening, shared her coach's opinion of the noisy gym.

Was she distracted? "No," Blessum smiled. "It was fun."

Maria Blessum led the evening's kill totals for the Panthers with 20, while Brooke Blessum logged 17 and Anni Stier scored 9. Sarah Blessum led the assists column with 51, while Brianna Leier scored 2 aces. Brooke Blessum had 3 blocks; Kelly Swanson had 2, and Maria Blessum came in with 1 block. Digs went to Maria Blessum with 10, while Stier and Jordan Seager had 9 each.

Aggie kills went to Kaitlyn Lund with 15, Rachel Mack with 9, and Emma Passa with 8. Hope Brewer totaled 30 assists; Madison Efferts had 3. Brewer logged 3 aces, while Grace Pfennig had 2. Blocks went to Passa with 3, and Mack with 2. Digs went to Jazmine Beardsley with 16, Grace Morgen with 14 and Effertz 13.



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