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Bulldogs topple Lumberjacks in new gym

Carlton's Abby Mickle makes a kill past Cloquet's Lucy Sinkkonen during Tuesday night's volleyball match. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 3
With Tiara Larson of Carlton blocking, Cloquet's Savannah Sears makes a kill in Tuesday night's volleyball match in the new Cloquet Middle School gym. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 3
Carlton's Alaina Bennett makes a kill past Cloquet's Grace Dushkin during Tuesday night's volleyball match. Bennett made 10 kills in Carlton's 3-1 match win. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal3 / 3

The first varsity athletic event at the new Cloquet Middle School Gymnasium had a little bit of everything — that is, except an American flag.

Before Cloquet squared off against visiting Carlton on Tuesday night, coach Heidi Anderson thought the staff had done everything possible to get ready for a big night at the new facility, but it turned out something important was missing.

"We worked very hard to get ready, then we lined up for the anthem ... and there was no flag," Anderson said.

That didn't stop both teams from being respectful, however.

"We did the anthem and respected the flag as though it were there," Cloquet assistant coach Tyler Korby said. "But we need to get a flag in the gym for the next game."

Once the Old Glory-less anthem was over, a supercharged Cloquet team looked like the rockets' red glare in a first-game 25-21 win. However, the youthful and talented Bulldogs were bombs bursting in air for the rest of the evening, winning the last three games 25-15, 25-13 and 25-11 to take the match 3-1.

"We didn't play very well the first game," Carlton coach Barb Soukkala said. "Our passing wasn't good, our service receive wasn't good. We got better as the game wore on, though."

Carlton was paced by sophomore Taylor Nelson, who racked up 12 kills. Identical twin sisters Abby Mickle (11 kills) and Brynn Mickle (42 set assists) also had big nights for Carlton, which also got 10 kills from Alaina Bennett.

Carlton's win ruined the big night for Cloquet, but Anderson noted that certain things in volleyball matter, no matter where you play.

"You still have to pass, serve and play defense," she said. "Carlton is very consistent and we have to bring the same intensity to the other three games we brought to the first."

Cloquet was led by Morgan Walsh and Lucy Sinkkonen with six kills each. Natalie Spath had 14 digs and Olivia Diver added 14 set assists.

Cloquet has missed three of its four seniors for various reasons in the early part of the season and welcomed Morgan Wolf back to the lineup Tuesday night after she suffered a separated shoulder in pre-season drills.

"I haven't really settled on a lineup," Anderson said. "We work hard but maybe we don't have the experience, and we have only four seniors so if three can't play, who steps up?"

Soukkala doesn't have that issue — even her sophomores are experienced, led by the do-everything Nelson.

"Taylor is so smart, she passes so well, and Cloquet kept serving to her so we were also fine with that," she said. "She and Abby (Mickle) aren't very tall, but they attack the ball so well from the outside and they know how to find gaps. They are very smart at placing the ball if they see an opening."

Carlton's players had set a goal of winning the first game in Cloquet's gym.

"Cloquet came out very strong and they had a good and loud crowd," Soukkala said. "But our kids took that as a challenge. They are a great group; they don't take things so seriously, and they get along well together."

That sort of solidarity is something Anderson will look to build as the season rolls along. "Once the lineup is set and solid, and the players know what to expect, it'll be better," she said. "But when the score is 25-11, you have to be trying different lineups and people to give them a chance to see what they can do. It's an adjustment process. I would expect that to get better as we get the seniors returning."

Soukkala is hoping for a big season from her team.

"They're all competitive, they all want to win and they are so smart," she said. "I call a timeout and I can just tell them 'take care of it' and they can get themselves fired up. They're a fun group to coach. And now they're all experienced, since even the sophomores have played varsity since eighth grade. Against Cloquet they just pulled it together after the first game and knew they could do better."