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Bulldogs beat Cards, but barely

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CARLTON—Bulldog junior Allysan Hoeffling is not only a force at the net as a 5-foot-11 middle hitter, but she’s also a blocking machine — and she follows each successful play with a big fist pump, loud cheer and even wider smile to energize her team.

Hoeffling couldn't contain that grin last Friday as she and freshman Taylor Nelson notched 17 kills each to back freshman Brynne Mickle's 58 set assists in a 25-19, 23-25, 23-25, 25-14, 15-5 come-from-behind victory over Cromwell-Wright during a wild Section 7A quarterfinal last week at Carton.

Carlton students — dressed in festive Halloween attire — got a scare when, after their second-seeded Bullodgs (20-10) won the night's opening set, dropped the second and third, which brought a healthy Cardinals crowd to their feet.

Yet, as third-rated Cromwell-Wright (16-8) wore down, the Bulldogs energized, easing to fourth- and final-set wins that sent them into Wednesday's semifinals at Virginia as this issue of the Pine Journal went to press.

"These games are the most fun," said Hoeffling afterward.

In the deciding set alone, Hoeffling had one of her several blocks for a score, and the right-hander pounded down points 10, 11 and 12, helping put an exclamation point on Carlton's comeback.

"They gave us a run for our money," Hoeffling said of the Cardinals. "But we just kept playing. We had a lot of energy."

That's what Soukkala said to her girls after their third set loss.

"I told them to relax and have fun," recalled Soukkala, "and play Carlton volleyball."

In other words, kill the ball. To go along with Hoeffling and Nelson's 34 combined winners, freshmen starters Alaina Bennett and Brynne's twin sister, Abby, also aren't afraid to swing. Senior Ebony DeLovely is also a presence on the net with Hoeffling.

Add in ninth-grade libero Nicole Nilsen, and Soukkala starts five freshmen.

"They're young, but they play like they're seniors," Hoeffling said. "They're always slamming the ball."

That constant attack was evident in the fourth and fifth sets Friday. According to Cardinals coach Amy Granholm, her all-over-floor team totalled 101 digs, but still couldn't contain the Bulldogs late.

"They were swinging hard at us and that made it hard to slow the ball down," Granholm said. "Kudos to Carlton."

While Granholm credited the hosts, she was quick to support the saddened girls in her locker room with the ultimate praise.

Earlier in the season, Cromwell-Wright was swept 3-0 by the Bulldogs, but last week was anything but. Senior Bailey Gronner led the way with 16 kills, while teammates like Taya and Shaily Hakamaki, along with Alyssa Hoff and Chelsea Swatek contributed plenty, as the Cardinals continuously ran down, dove and kept alive balls many thought were unplayable.

"They got some up that I thought were down," said Soukkala. "They were very scrappy."

"I don't think they ever let the ball drop without someone trying to touch it," Granholm added. "They went every possible way to scrap and sacrifice their bodies. It was amazing how well we played.

"We sniffed it," continued Granholm of their near upset of the three-time section finalist Bulldogs. "I'm very proud of them. They have nothing to leave here and hang their heads about."

Carlton, meanwhile, are matched up with Deer River (14-14), who are seeking their fourth consecutive section final, in Wednesday’s semifinals. The No. 4 Warriors are headed by longtime coach Connie Boyum-Erzar, who in her 35th season, sports 604 career victories.

Soukkala was asked if her girls will be ready for the challenge after the one-hour bus trip north?

"They’ve got young legs," said Soukkala with a laugh. "They'll be fired up."

No. 3 North Woods (20-8) and defending champion and top-seeded Cook County (20-3) sit on the opposite side of the bracket. If the Vikings meet the Bulldogs, it would be a repeat of last year's final, set for 4 p.m. Saturday in Virginia.

Cook County beat the Bulldogs 3-1 in last season's final and by the same score 16 days ago in Carlton.

"We're taking things one game at a time," said Hoeffling. "But I've always been told to mentally prepare ahead of things, just in case we see Cook County again. I really hope we do.

"I want to go to state now," Hoeffling continued of a potential fifth appearance in school history and third in the past four years. "We have so much heart, love for the game and we're one big family. I know we can."

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