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Sutton, Vikings send Bulldogs home

Carlton's Abby Mickle makes a kill past Cook County's Alyssa Lashinski during Saturday night's Section 7A championship match at Duluth Denfeld. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal1 / 2
Carlton's Tiara Larson defends a kill attempt by Cook County's Meredith Sutton during Saturday night's Section 7A championship match at Duluth Denfeld. It took five games for Cook County to defeat the Bulldogs, who finish the season 24-5. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal2 / 2

Following a career-high evening on the volleyball court, in which Meredith Sutton slammed home 39 kills, the Cook County senior couldn't help but use the infamous Nike slogan when asked what goes through her mind each time the special right-hander swings at the ball.

"I don't really think about it," she said. "I just do it."

In fact, all Sutton and the Vikings have done for the past three years is advance to the Class A state tournament. They will begin state play again today, Thursday Nov. 9, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul following an epic 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 22-25, 15-13 victory over Carlton in a wild Section 7A championship last Saturday at Duluth Denfeld High School.

Not surprisingly, last weekend's five-setter began and ended with Sutton, as the 6-foot outside hitter had the night's first kill and the last, the latter of which sent a mob of celebratory Cook County teammates rushing on to the floor.

"She's a special kid — she can do it all," said Vikings coach Pam Taylor, now in her 35th season at Grand Marais.

With Minnesota-Duluth coach Jim Boos in attendance, the UMD-bound Sutton surely didn't disappoint, killing the ball from left side to right, front row and back. Never once leaving the court, Sutton also added 25 digs and four blocks in the Vikings (22-5) 17th consecutive — and biggest — victory.

Yet, combining with Cook County to win every 7A crown for the past five years — Carlton also won titles in 2013 and 2014 — the gritty Bulldogs (24-6) didn't go down quietly.

That was most evident in the fourth set, when the Vikings seemed poised for a three-peat up 12-4, until an unforeseen 9-0 Carlton spurt put the Bulldogs back in front.

When one of Abby Mickle's 21 kills later ended it in Carlton's favor, the hard-swinging sophomore letting out an emotional cheer while nearby, the raucous student section followed suit.

"We knew we just had to keep fighting," said Mickle.

Alaina Bennett and Taylor Nelson had 19 total kills and senior Ally Hoeffling recorded five blocks.

"I can't ask for anything more," said longtime Bulldogs coach Barb Soukkala. "My kids left it all out on the court."

That they did, leading to the decisive fifth game, which included nine ties and six lead changes within about 15 minutes. Ahead 13-12, however, Carlton couldn't shut down the star Sutton, who scored points 13, 14 and the section-winner all in a row.

"We would have done the same thing," said Soukkala, now in her 24th season, of continuously setting Sutton. "She's one of the best players I've seen around here in a long time."

"She makes me look really good," a laughing Coach Taylor said.