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No. 4 Panthers pick up two sweeps in playoffs run before falling to SCC

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Mackenzie Kummer attacks Baldwin-Woodville's front row while libero Mallory Bleeker provides coverage in the Panthers playoff game against the Blackhawks on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Photo submitted by Jon Claesson2 / 4
Kaitlyn Nugent sets up an Ellsworth attack against the Altoona Railroaders on Thursday, Oct. 19. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
Claire Kummer sends an attack over to St. Croix Central in the regional matchup on Saturday, Oct. 21. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

Ellsworth advanced to the second round of playoffs after they defeated Baldwin-Woodville in a 3-0 sweep on Tuesday, Oct. 17. The Panthers ended the Blackhawks (0-11, 0-5) season with set scores of 25-19, 25-12 and 25-16.

Morgan and Mackenzie Kummer played a large role in their team's Tuesday night win. Morgan led the Panthers with five service aces and 13 digs. Mackenzie followed suit by leading her team in the front row with 12 kills and six blocks.

Kaitlyn Nugent recorded 27 assists against the Blackhawks.

This was the first Panthers first-round playoff win in "quite some time," according to head coach Nicole Vande Berg.

"We didn't play our best game, so we know we have room to improve, and we are going to have to play better against Altoona on Thursday," Vande Berg said after her team's win against B-W. "We have to get rid of a number of unforced errors if we want to continue to move on."

The Panthers took coach Vande Berg's thoughts on Tuesday's game to heart, and came out looking like a new team on Thursday, Oct. 19 versus the No. 5-ranked Altoona Railroaders (10-6, 5-2).

Ellsworth claimed their second sweep of the week against the Railroaders in sets of 25-14, 25-21 and 25-23.

Ellsworth controlled the tempo and kept the lead throughout the entire first set. Altoona closed the deficit to two points down 11-13, but Ellsworth went on a 4-0 run behind the serving of Claire and Mackenzie's net play.

The Railroaders used a timeout once down 11-16 and were able to get a sideout at 12-17, but would only score two more points in the first set to lose 14-25 to the Panthers.

Ellsworth held on to their momentum going into the second set of the night, and got off to a 7-3 lead with points coming from a Nugent ace and kills from Mackenzie and Claire. The Railroaders responded with a 6-2 run of their own, which tied the scores at 9-9, but it wouldn't be enough to get an edge on the Panthers. The Panthers got off to another 4-0 run with a Nugent kill and an ace from the setter along with Altoona errors. Nugent finished with three service aces in Thursday night's match.

The Railroaders managed to get within three points of the Panthers at 23-20, but Ellsworth turned to Morgan for the last kill of the second set to steal the 25-20 victory.

The third and final set was the closest set of the night, and Altoona even managed to take a short-lived lead over Ellsworth at 4-3, their first of the night. The Panthers cleaned up their play and pulled away from the Railroaders with an 18-11 lead, which forced the Railroaders to take another timeout.

From there, the Railroaders went on a 7-2 run of their own, and Vande Berg called a timeout to pull her team together.

"I told the girls just to relax and get a good pass," Vande Berg said about her timeout called late in the game. "If we get a good pass we can put the ball away, because we've got hitters who do that. They get a little uptight when the game gets that close, but I just told them to take a deep breath."

The Panthers loosened up after their team huddle and corrected their passes, which allowed Nugent to set up Mackenzie who recorded three kills during crunch time of the third set. Altoona put up a fight, but the Panthers walked away with a third-set win of 25-20 and a victory in their last home game of the season.

Vande Berg said Thursday night's performance was the best her team's serve receive has looked in a while.

"Passing was great, and it let Kaitlyn Nugent run whatever she wanted to offensively," Vande Berg said. "When we can do that, we're tough to stop."

The Panthers superior passing was led by Claire who recorded 12 digs and three service aces against Altoona.

Nugent recorded 30 assists, and set up Mackenzie multiple times, which helped the junior hitter lead the team with 15 kills.

Mackenzie also led with three blocks against the Railroaders. Vande Berg said that the Panthers' blocking would have to be spot on in order to win their next game on Saturday, Oct. 21 against Saint Croix Central whose outside hitters had given Ellsworth a hard time earlier in the season.

But Saturday's game was no different than the two teams' earlier matchup. SCC's outside hitters, Abigail Widiker and Katie Koerper, led their team to a 3-1 victory over Ellsworth with a combined total of 30 kills.

Ellsworth was led by Mackenzie with 14 kills, but the team was unable to run the smooth offense that they're used to because of their poor serve receive.

Ellsworth got off to a 5-0 lead, which turned into a quick 10-2 lead early in the first set, but gave up the lead at 18-19, and ultimately lost the first set 22-25 off of a Widiker ace.

Vande Berg said the SCC comeback in the first set swung momentum in the No. 1-seeded team's direction, and led to a 1-3 loss for Ellsworth. SCC won with set scores of 25-22, 25-19, 15-25 and 25-15.

"We had a great group of kids to work with everyday and we are sad to see it end," Vande Berg said. "We thought we had a good chance on Saturday, but our serve receive fell apart and really hurt us."

The Panthers graduate three seniors, who Vande Berg said will be tough to replace.

"The leadership of the seniors as a whole during practice made a huge difference for us. They had a big impact on the team and the program," she said.

The Panthers close the season with a record of 18-9, 6-1, and with the large number of experienced players returning next year, Vande Berg said her team hopes to build on the program even more than they did this season.

The 28-0 St. Croix Central Panthers will continue their playoff run on Thursday, Oct. 26 when they play No. 3 Rice Lake in the Division 4 sectional.