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Volleyball: Ellsworth takes the reins in Highway 10 rivalry

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Ellsworth middle hitter Mackenzie Kummer proved to be too much for the Prescott Cardinals to handle in the Panthers' 3-0 win on Thursday, Sept. 13. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 5
“Ashley (Rieken) is in charge of the whole back row, and she obviously missed a few, but those hits had power behind them, and she did a great job tonight,” Sami Martell said after her team's 3-0 loss to the Ellsworth Panthers on Thursday, Sept. 13. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 5
Prescott's McKenna Johnson attempts to break through the blocking wall of Mackenzie Kummer and Brooke Minder on Thursday, Sept. 13. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 5
Ellsworth's Mallory Bleeker and Nadia Sigler provide coverage during a Claire Kummer outside attack. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia5 / 5

The Ellsworth-Prescott rivalry returned on Thursday, Sept. 13, but despite entertaining student sections and an improved Cardinals team, the Panthers set unmatched standards for the Highway 10 rivalry early on.

"The Ellsworth-Prescott rivalry is always a big deal," Ellsworth's head coach Nicole VandeBerg said. "It doesn't matter which team is better, both teams are going to play to the best of their abilities."

Despite a back-and-forth Set 3 that featured four lead changes, the Panthers' abilities proved to be incomparable in their 3-0 sweep.

The Panthers used a 7-0 run early in Set 1 to take a 12-4 lead behind the serving and hitting of Mackenzie Kummer, giving the Cardinals a taste of what one of the best hitters in the Middle Border Conference has to offer.

The Cardinals responded with a three-point rally of their own, but would ultimately suffer a 25-12 Set 1-loss after failing to handle the Panthers' multidimensional front row play that featured kills from Mackenzie, Claire Kummer, Brooke Minder and Avery O'Neil.

The Panthers got off to a 5-1 lead in Set 2 with an outside kill from Mackenzie, a double block from the middle hitter and Minder and an Alexia Sabby outside kill, and continued to cause problems for the Cardinals as they climbed to a 17-7 lead before Prescott's first timeout of the set. The Cardinals came out of the timeout with an Ashley Rieken back-row kill but only managed to get within seven points of the Panthers at 20-13 before their hosts claimed a 25-16 Set 2-win with a Minder outside kill.

The Cardinals' fate would soon be determined without a set win, but not without giving their rivals a more-pronounced challenge.

"I kept telling the girls to get energy and anger," Prescott's head coach Sami Martell said, "and I think they did that in Set 3."

The Cardinals hung tight with the Panthers and maintained a small lead thanks to improved vocal leadership from Rieken in the back row, kills from Kiki Carey, Kaelyn Lewis, McKenna Johnson and Aaliyah Anderson, but the Panthers soon took a two-point lead with a Prescott serving error and a kill from Mackenzie that's gravitational force appeared to be twofold.

Down 18-15, Martell used her team's first timeout of Set 3 before the Cardinals tied the set at 20-20 with a Sydney Benck kill, three unforced errors from the Panthers and a Benck ace.

However, two outside kills from Claire and Sabby and a set-ending rightside kill from O'Neil let the Cardinals know they have a lot to improve on if they want to showcase the Ellsworth-Prescott rivalry at its full potential by the end of the season.

"We knew this was going to be a tough game," Martell said after her team's 25-21 Set 3-loss. "We watched film from their game against River Falls on Tuesday, but as we go forward, we're just going to have to focus on playing our roles. If we get hectic and chaotic out there, then we have to get back to our individual roles."

Martell thought libero Rieken carried out her role admirably, considering the talented hitters she was challenged to defend her court against.

"Ashley is in charge of the whole back row, and she obviously missed a few, but those hits had power behind them, and she did a great job tonight," Martell said.

VandeBerg was also pleased with the effort she saw from her libero Nadia Sigler and defensive specialist Mallory Bleeker.

"The front row gets all of the accolades, right, because it's really fun to watch somebody hit the ball and the person who passes it gets nothing, but Nadia covers a lot more ground than I've seen a lot of liberos cover," VandeBerg said. "She's not very big and she just comes out of nowhere to get to the ball. You know she and Mallory are going to be consistent and they often play someone else's ball, which helps us."

Bleeker and Sigler will be tasked with digging the aggressive attacks from St. Croix Central's dominant Abigail Widiker in their upcoming Thursday, Sept. 20, match against the 14-5 blue Panthers.

"We know what Central has, we've played them enough in the past three years," VandeBerg said. "They have a fantastic outside hitter, and she gets every ball when she's in the front row, so we've got to work hard on building our defense around that."

As for the Cardinals, prior to being back in action on Thursday, Sept. 20, at Amery, Martell said her setters Allie and Savanna Murphy will focus on bringing their sets off of the net to better accommodate their hitters.

Both Thursday, Sept. 20, MBC matches are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.