VIRGINIA—Skipping their teams' lunch break to play more volleyball at an exhibition scrimmage earlier this August, it didn't take long to notice which two coaches in the Hibbing High School gymnasium have been around this sport for a while.
Sporting over 1,100 wins together, Deer River's Connie Boyum-Erzar and Carlton's Barb Soukkala are seemingly ageless winners in a high school sport that began in the 1970s.
In Virginia Nov. 2, Erzar's Warriors edged Soukkala's Bulldogs in a five-set Section 7A semifinal, scoring a 18-25, 27-25, 25-17, 12-25, 15-8 victory.
For Erzar, now in her 35th season at the small school west of Grand Rapids, it marked her 605th career win, adding to several state tournament trips. Soukkala meanwhile — who's been coaching at her alma mater beginning in 1977 and heading the varsity since 1993 — has 500-plus victories and four state appearances herself.
"We're pretty even," said Soukkala of the two teams over time, including this fall, when Carlton counted a five-set win in Deer River Aug. 30.
That said, going the distance last week wasn't a surprise. While the Bulldogs (20-11) looked poised to cruise after taking the opening set, the Warriors (15-15) answered late in the second to even things, and then pulled away in the third.
Carlton countered in the fourth, but in a decisive fifth, Deer River — and mighty middle hitter Hope Schjenken — took over. Schjenken, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, collected six of her game-high 26 kills in the last set, many of which whistled by Bulldog defenders.
"We didn't adjust to her very well," Soukkala said.
Erzar, meanwhile, standing up most of the evening hollering encouragement and displaying satisfaction with plenty of first-pumps, kept the team feeding her fast-armed righty until the match ended. Schjenken added three blocks, while teammate Devanee Tibbetts tossed 33 set assists.
The freshmen quartet of Brynne Mickle (40 set assists), twin sister Abbey Mickle (15 kills), Taylor Nelson (15 kills) and Alaina Bennett (11 kills) centered Carlton, but it wasn’t enough for a team seeking its fourth consecutive section final appearance.
Nonetheless, with hunting season approaching, plenty of blaze orange-wearing students and families stuck around to congratulate their Bulldogs after a match that from start to finish, including the beginning of the season until the end, was a toss up.
"It could have [gone] either way," said Carlton's Ebony DeLovely, the team's lone senior.
"If we would have kept playing, it would have continued to go back and forth," added Soukkala, still proud her team's accomplishments this fall. "I told them in the locker room after the game that they should be proud of what they did. They all stepped up and overall, it was a good season."
That may be putting it lightly, considering Soukkala doesn't start a single senior, but rather fields five freshmen in her opening rotation, including the Mickle twins, Nelson, Bennett and Nicole Nilsen, along with junior Allysan Hoeffling. By far the youngest team in the section, the Bulldogs often look too youthful to understand risk, constantly attacking balls and keeping plays alive.
Perhaps that was best shown last week when, in the fourth set, Bennett athletically leapt over a sideline chair, passed the ball over her head, fell into the first row bleachers and still managed to hobble back into a play the Bulldogs eventually won.
"They're amazing," said DeLovely her younger teammates. "They have a ton of potential. When they're seniors, they're going to kick it."
For DeLovely, a 5-11 middle hitter who transferred to Carlton from Cloquet at the beginning of her sophomore year, unfortunately her last game ended with the Warriors. Despite defeat, she was her normal upbeat self afterward.
"It was hard to lose, being my final game of high school. I'm really going to miss my teammates and this atmosphere, but we played well all year and came out as strong as we could," said DeLovely. "It was all just fun. These section games are the fun ones."
"A leader," Soukkala described of DeLovely. "She was always enthusiastic and cheering on everybody else all the time."
DeLovely noted her cheerleading will continue with the start of next season, promising she'll be in the stands for their first game. If that's against Erzar and Deer River like it was this fall, one can only assume where DeLovely will pick her seat.
"I'll be front and center," she said.
Deer River was swept by two-time defending champion Cook County in Saturday's final.