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Bulldogs back with ‘three-peat’ in mind

Carlton volleyball seniors pose for a photo after Tuesday's practice. The Bulldogs, which have been to back-to-back high school state tournaments, are seeking their third consecutive and fifth overall appearance this fall. Seniors are (back row, from left) Macy Belich, Morgan Cadigan, Lindsay Ermatinger; (front row) Hannah Benson, Amanda Groth and Courtney Ableiter. Tyler Korby/news@pinejournal.com

Carlton volleyball coach Barb Soukkala and her Bulldogs are back this fall after making the most recent two trips to state, and the longtime coach — at Carlton since 1977 — said it’s no secret that they want a third.

“They’ve talked about returning and doing it again,” Soukkala said of the state tournament, held at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. “I think that if you’re not coming into the first day of practice looking at being in the state tournament in November, then you should be doing something else.”

Despite going 0-4 over the past two years at the Xcel, Carlton is centered on making a ‘three-peat’ — something the tiny school has never done, but came close after runs in 2003 and 2004.

If it happens this year, it will have to be accomplished without the presence of four graduates from last fall’s 27-7 squad, including three full-time starters in Grace Macor, Jess Stanslaski and Brianna Walton.

Soukkala noted they are not rebuilding, but reloading.

“We’re still going to be strong,” Soukkala said. “There are kids who are going to step into places pretty nicely. They’re doing a great job for us. Our practices have been going well.”

At the end of practice Tuesday, outside hitter Macy Belich — a high-jumping senior who has been on the varsity team since seventh grade — screamed several balls down the sideline and crosscourt. She will surely be the go-to cog for the Bulldogs, a team that opens the season in a couple weeks.

“September 8 at McGregor,” Belich said instantly, sounding like she’s had the date circled since last November.

Soukkala was jokingly asked if she wears a football helmet at practice on days when Belich is swinging at balls.

“I don’t know if she has hit anyone over, but she hits it pretty good,” she said of her righty. “We’ve had a lot of good outsides who can pound the ball, but she’s right up there.”

Savvy seniors Amanda Groth, Hannah Benson and Lindsay Ermatinger will be critical players, as well as classmates Courtney Ableiter, Morgan Cadigan and others.

“I think a lot of people think we lost a lot of seniors and we won’t make it back to state, but a lot of girls have put in so much time,” said Groth. “I think we’ll impress some people.”

A return would mean another plaque and blue T-shirt.

“We have one that says back-to-back on it,” said Soukkala of their team shirts. “It’d be nice for a three-peat.”

AREA ROUNDUP:

The team the Bulldogs beat to advance to state last fall was South Ridge, a squad that went 25-4 and returns four starters, but not the school’s all-time kills leader Justice Janke or Coach Brad Olesiak’s daughter, Mikayla, at setter.

Still, the Panthers remain driven to return to the final, and have the talent to do so with multi-sport athletes like senior trio Krystal Karppinen, Lindsey Janke and Mallory Thibault.

“I think they’re hungry to get back there,” Olesiak said.

One club back with a new look is Esko, which went 16-12 last season keyed by 6-foot-5 Molly Trapp, who is now at South Dakota State University. Minus Trapp, Coach Desiree DeLeon said life is smaller for the Eskomos, but upperclassmen, like Karinne Houser and CJ Stoyanoff, help.

“I have five seniors, all who played,” DeLeon said.

Coach Beckie Jackson at Moose Lake-Willow River had that veteran look last year, going 19-9, but graduation hurt. The Rebels lost major power in Adri Jusczak and Karina Cisar, both collegiate athletes, and now rely on juniors Sage Gerard, Ally Bode (back from injury) and senior Libbie Ring.

“We’re one of the shortest teams around,” said Coach Jackson. “We know that, so we’ll just have to step it up.”

Barnum, Cromwell-Wright and Wrenshall all have teams up-and-running, as all 12 Polar League schools were playing Wednesday afternoon in Esko at the league jamboree.

Fond du Lac Ojibwe, meanwhile, will sport a team again coached by Dale Sautbine, now entering his 32nd season.

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