Volleyball postseason play beginsCarlton County 7A and 7AA volleyball teams begin section playoffs this week.
By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
CARLTON – Thirteen-year-olds Hannah Benson and Macy Belich are in their first season with the Carlton varsity volleyball team.
Watching them play, you could never tell.
For the pair of fresh-faced eighth-graders, the advanced level of play in varsity is something they take on easily. After all, they’re still newly-turned teenagers, like three-quarters of the Bulldogs roster this season.
“I don’t think they even know the pressure of the game, they’re so young,” said longtime Carlton Coach Barb Soukkala, who has eight freshman-or-younger players on her 12-girl varsity roster this fall. “They seem to just play and have a good time, never getting down on each other.”
Carlton kicked off the 2011 volleyball postseason Monday night with a convincing 25-12, 25-11, 25-18 sweep of neighboring Wrenshall in a Section 7A opening round clash. Although the win took less than an hour, it was noticeable that Soukkala’s bunch was loose, like normal.
“Being a young team is hard,” said setter Benson afterward. “We don’t really play our best when we’re down, so we just try to have fun.”
The Bulldogs’ easy-going style has led them to an 11-15 record on the court and the sixth-seed in the playoffs. Soukkala, now in her 34th year coaching, noted that although impressive at times, her flip-flopping team can have its rough days, too.
“There are times where they play awesome, but then crash,” she said. “This is by far the youngest team I’ve ever coached. A lot of them could be playing JV, C-team or even seventh- or eighth-grade volleyball.”
But that doesn’t mean Soukkala treats them like they’re that age.
“We get on them as much as our seniors,” she said, noting the team’s seniors are Alanna Groth, Marita Yellowhammer and Lindsey Dahl-Holm. “They’re a young bunch, but they’re a great group of kids. The seniors have really done a nice job with the younger ones. All of them seem to get a long.”
“We have some things to work on,” added Belich, an outside hitter. “But I think we play well for our age.”
Carlton was set to collide with third-seeded Northeast Range – a team they swept in mid-September – Wednesday as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press. A win would propel them to Friday’s quarterfinals in Hibbing against either South Ridge or Ely.
Fourth-seeded Cromwell-Wright, sporting a 10-8 record, opened postseason play Wednesday against Silver Bay. A victory there would push Lori Wester’s streaking Cardinals to Friday’s quarterfinals against possible top-seed Cook County in Hermantown.
“We’re peaking and feeling confident,” said Wester, noting the season-long contribution from senior starters MaKayleigh Cahoon, Brianna House and Marlene Wester, her daughter. “It’s all about mental toughness. And we’re feeling good.”
Also Monday, along with Wrenshall closing its year, Fond du Lac Ojibwe was similarly swept in three at Silver Bay 25-4, 25-15, 25-3. Elsewhere, in Section 5A, bottom-seeded Barnum, at 4-18, will look to top Braham again Thursday night in first-round play.
In Section 7AA, Esko and Cloquet are just a pair of contenders in a postseason field of teams including Hermantown, Hibbing, Greenway, Virginia and dark horse Mora.
Last year, the Eskomos breezed their way to the state tournament, never losing a set in sectional play. Coach Desiree DeLeon knows, though, this fall is no cake walk.
“It’s anyone’s game,” she said.
“Everyone has been beating everyone,” added Cloquet Coach Heidi Anderson.
Retooled Esko sits atop the field at 22-4 while Cloquet is in the middle of the pack at 15-11. Anderson said her girls are getting better and, like anyone, could make a push at things.
“Really, we’ve been playing some of our best volleyball these last couple weeks,” she said of her youthful Lumberjacks, which welcomed Aitkin Wednesday night as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press. “In the playoffs though, you have to be consistent and keep your composure. You have to execute the fundamentals and minimize the unforced errors.”
Senior outside hitter Stephanie Bandelin likes her Esko team’s chances.
“When we’re all gelling together, we’re pretty tough to beat,” she said. “I think having gone to state last year, we have that target on our backs still. We’re confident, but not overconfident. We can’t overlook anybody.”
At 3-22, Moose Lake-
Willow River also sits in the field a lower seed and traveled to Mora Wednesday. Section quarterfinals are Friday in Proctor and Mesabi East, with Grand Rapids hosting the semifinals and championship down the road.
“I think [we’re] the team to beat,” added DeLeon about her Esko girls, who opened tournament play hosting Hinckley-Finlayson Wednesday evening at home. “But there’s lots of competition.”