Opportunity knocks for Bluejay girls

The door was opened in last Saturday’s second leg of the WVC tournament, and last Tuesday the Merrill girls walked right in.
The Bluejays reached the first of their goals when they sewed up a Valley championship with a 3-0 win over Wausau West on Tuesday, taking advantage of a SPASH loss to Marshfield the previous Saturday.
Merrill closed out its WVC schedule with an 11-1 mark (34-2 overall), while SPASH (10-2, 27-8) and Marshfield (9-3, 30-9) fell in behind. Wausau East (6-6, 23-14) and Wausau West 4-8, 11-21) hit the middle.
When it came to Valley games, Merrill captured 35 wins while losing just 6 on the whole season, including three to SPASH on Oct. 6.
“All season the girls have had the goal of winning conference,” MHS coach Steph Nelson said. “We knew that we would have to play our best every game because everyone is always looking to take down the top team. We did not play spectacular tonight, but we played as a team and we sealed the deal.
“I believe that we really do deserve this honor. I know a lot of coaches say that, but we really do. Our girls work hard just like every other team, but we have the determination, the volleyball IQ, and the pure talent and instinct to get it done.”
The Bluejays parlayed their regular-season success into a favorable post-season position. They will receive the only bye in their regional, and will host the winner of Thursday’s match between 8th-seeded Superior and 9th-seed Antigo in a 7:00 p.m. match on Saturday.
The Bluejays took nearly all of the drama out of the clinching match with West by locking down the conference championship on games of 25-21, 25-14, 25-13.
Merrill also celebrated Senior Night, with the young squad featuring just Jess Sabey and Kaylin Byer.
“They’re two of our strongest players,” Nelson said.
Bluejay contributions came from: Lindsay Krueger (33 as, 6 d); Renee Sladek (17 k, 3 d, 3 bl); Jess Sabey (9 k, 9 d); Kaylin Byer (11 d); Katie Zuelsdorff (4 k, 5 d); Aubrey Wardall (4 k, 3 d), Reegan Byer (7 d); Lauren Hojan (3 k, 2 bl); Bri Piepenbrok (3 d).
T-Bird adaptation
The Bluejays dealt with some unexpected difficulties when they closed out the regular season in Lakeland on Thursday.
Renee Sladek, the Valley’s most efficient hitter by a landslide, missed the match while the team rested her sore shoulder.
Without the sophomore Sladek in the line-up, others picked up the slack on the way to a 3-1 win. Merrill split 25-20, 21-25 games to start, then upped the ante with wins of 25-11 and 25-19.
“It didn’t go very smooth, but it was a great learning experience for us to go through before playoffs start,” Nelson said. “We were missing Renee Sladek, but we had Aubrey Wardall step up huge and play the game of her career, and Katie Zuelsdorff stepped up to help in the kill category as well. Tonight, we worked with a different line-up than they were used to and it was good for them to see what it takes to step up and play something that they’re not used to.
“When playoffs start, you never know if there are going to be injuries (knock on wood) and we may not be able to practice different line-ups. Like I said, it was a great learning night and I think, even though we were frustrated with the way we played, this was a good thing for us to grow from.
“We had a great talk on the bus ride home, and the girls are so motivated and ready for whatever may come in playoffs.”
As far as Sladek’s future availability, “She just was out with some shoulder pain; we didn’t want to push it with her,” Nelson said. “She could have played, but at this point in the season we’d like to get her 100%.”
Offerings for the Lakeland match were turned in by: Krueger (3 k, 40 as, 8 d); Sabey (21 k, 7 d); Zuelsdorff (12 k, 3 ac, 6 d, 2 bl); R. Byer (3 k, 4 as, 10 d, 2 bl); Wardall (11 k, 3 bl); K. Byer (13 d); Piepenbrok (8 d); Hojan (3 bl).

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