Merrill takes regional title

The Bluejay girls found a first-round regional bye to their liking; a little respite to rest and focus for the real task nearly at hand.
Then they quickly got down to business.
Merrill locked up a WIAA regional title with Saturday’s compelling 25-12, 25-16, 25-21 triumph over long-trekking Superior.
“Tonight the girls came out on fire,” MHS coach Steph Nelson said. “They have a goal of making it to state this year and tonight you could tell how much they really wanted it.
“It feels good to bring home the regional final plaque and get yet one step closer to their ultimate goal.
“Superior is a good team. We played well against them, but, like usual, we can always play just a little bit better. “
Merrill jumped out to a 10-3 lead in the first game, the last two points from Jess Sabey’ smashes, and a third gave the Jays a 16-5 commanding lead. The girls reached 23-9 on a smothering Renee Sladek block, and Lindsay Krueger dropped a tip into a hole for the 24-12 margin before a Superior mistake ended it.
“The first game the girls came out hard and on fire and won 25-12,” Nelson said. “They were serving aggressive, moving the ball around on offense and making smart decisions, then defensively they were reading tips very well and didn’t let many balls drop.
“The second game they didn’t quite have the intensity, but they still won 25-16. The last game I think they just wanted to make things interesting. At one point we were losing by about four points, but they came back and won 25-21.”
The Spartans hung around early in Game 2, a pair of Aubrey Wardall blocks and a quick spike giving Merrill a 4-3 edge. The jays quickly pulled away to 12-6, a pair of Superior errors wrapped around a Lauren Hojan spike and Reegan Byan ace. Errors continued to plague the Spartans, while Merrill turned up the heat. The Jays turned a 17-11 lead into 21-13 comfort with Sabey and Sladek smashes, and a pair of unlikely back-row spikes from Kaylin Byer.
Superior made a mini-run to 21-16, before back-to-back tips from Krueger and Sladek and a pair of Spartan miscues ended it.
Merrill showed comeback composure in Game 3, trailing 5-2 and 12-8 early, although three of Superior’s points-a 6-point swing in rally scoring-came when Merrill flukily ended up in the net on solid plays.
The Jays used an 8-1 run to a 16-13 lead. At 13-13, Superior made a pair of incredible saves, but Katie Zuelsdorff spiked the point down anyway.
“Katie didn’t have many kills, but when it was tied in the third game she had this phenomenal kill,” Nelson said. “When we came off to the side (on a Superior time out) she told me, ‘I looked at the score and didn’t think it should be that way.’ That’s when we started to play a lot better. I think it’s great when a sophomore gets it in her head she wants to make a change and does it.”
Sladek hammered a ball just out of bounds to allow Superior to tie it at 17-17, but she responded with a pair of blasts, then Sabey crushed three spikes around a beautiful block and Merrill led 22-20. A Hojan spike was offset by a carry-throw tip, but Hojan’s clean tip made it 24-21, and Sladek crushed match point.
“Jess had one of those spectacular matches on offense,” Nelson said. “She had a kill % of .500. Renee did very well, but when Jess went after a ball it was almost always a kill.
“Kaylin had a bunch of really nice digs. Our overall defense was pretty good. There weren’t as many balls hitting the ground. All my girls on defense were reading their opponents pretty well and getting on top of pretty much everything.”
Merrill counted on contributions from: Lindsay Krueger (5 k, 25 as, 7 d); Jess Sabey (14 k, 3 as, 4 d, 2 bl); Renee Sladek (9 k, 3 bl); Kaylin Byer (11 d); Aubrey Wardall (2 bl), Reegan Byer (3 ac, 3 d); Katie Zuelsdorff (3 k); Bri Piepenbrok (3 d).
Merrill will host Eau Claire Memorial at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday in the sectional semi-final. The winner plays the Marshfield/Eau Claire North survivor on Saturday at Eau Claire memorial for the right to go to state.
“We played them at the D.C. Everest tournament at the beginning of the year and won 2-0, but that doesn’t mean much at this point of the season,” Nelson said. “They have one very strong hitter, a girl that’s pretty deadly on her tips and, if I remember correctly, their libero (defensive specialist) is pretty good. Yeah, we beat them, but we had to earn our points.
“We’re going to be scrappy on defense and we are a very strong team on offense. But now we have to be smart. Sure, we usually are, but now we have to bring our ‘A’ game.”

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