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Bulldogs bound for state's pinnacle

Preview: Carlton Bulldogs are off to State!

Students, faculty and fans cheered Wednesday morning as the Carlton volleyball team was honored during the small school's pep fest send-off celebration.

Perhaps that celebration will be even louder if the unseeded Bulldogs (26-5) can maneuver by No. 2 Minneota (29-3) in today's (Nov. 7) 3 p.m. Class A state quarterfinal at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Semifinals and finals will be on Friday and Saturday.

Carlton -- making its first state appearance since back-to-back trips in 2003 and 2004 -- remains confident, despite playing the state veteran Vikings, which only lost 11 of their 91 sets this season.

"A lot of girls don't get to go down here," said 36th-year Bulldogs Coach Barb Soukkala. "Minneota has been coming down for many years."

"They haven't seen Carlton," Grace Macor added.

~ Tyler Korby/Pine Journal

Bulldogs are Section 7A champions

As a former football tackle, it was no surprise that Myranda Papesh was in the middle of the pile last Saturday.

Papesh and her celebratory Carlton teammates dog-piled on top of each other after sweeping McGregor 25-17, 25-15, 25-20 on their way to the Section 7A prep volleyball championship last weekend at Deer River High School.

Papesh, a loud-voiced, enthusiastic senior libero, played football through eighth grade until swapping sports her freshman year. The captain made the right decision, playing an important role in bringing the Bulldogs back to the state tournament for the first time since the small school's lone trips back in 2003 and 2004.

"It's indescribable," said Papesh, the team's only senior.

The Bulldogs (26-5) -- organized by both Brianna Walton and Hannah Benson's 26 set assists -- teamed to trample the Mercuries last weekend as Carlton cruised to first- and second-set wins, before one of Macy Belich's 12 kills put away the match against their Polar League nemeses.

"We were there to win," said Grace Macor, who had a match-best 13 kills, one year after the Bulldogs' sweeping loss against North Woods in the Section final.

"That experience from last year really helped them," added Carlton Coach Barb Soukkala, now in her 36th season. "They didn't want it to happen to them again."

Miracle team McGregor, which upset the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds en route to the program's first-ever final and 20-win season, just happened to run into a hungrier opponent.

"Carlton tipped, went short, went line -- they mixed things up and kept our girls constantly out of position," Mercs Coach Jen Wahlin said. "They deserved to beat us."

The unseeded Bulldogs will now look to beat No. 2 Minneota (29-3) in today's -- Nov. 7 -- Class A state quarterfinal at 3 p.m. the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Over her three-plus decades of coaching, Soukkala knows state competition is tough, but also an experience to cherish.

"We shanked a couple balls off the ceiling today, that won't happen there," she said of the immaculately large arena, with a laugh. "Your side is still 30 feet by 30 feet.

"We're going to go down and play the best we can. This is an experience they'll remember for the rest of their lives."

"I've been dreaming of this since I was a little girl," added Jessica Stanslaski. "Now we actually get to go play."

For Papesh, walking into the Xcel will be her first time.

"There's nothing better I could ask for," she said.

Minnesota Class A Tournament

Xcel Energy Center

Nov. 7 3:00 pm Quarterfinals, Carlton vs. Minneota

Nov. 8 3:00 pm Semifinals

Nov. 9 1:00 pm Finals