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Third time’s a charm: Belich, Bulldogs want one more run

The Bulldogs volleyball players cannot contain their excitement as they pull to within one point of taking a Section 7A playoff win against the South Ridge Panthers Friday night in Culver. Dan Saletel/ 1 / 2
Carlton senior Lindsay Ermatinger hits past South Ridge defender Mallory Thibault during Friday night’s matchup between the Bulldogs and the Panthers. Dan Saletel/ 2 / 2

Macy Belich began playing volleyball on Barb Soukkala’s Carlton varsity team as a small, shy seventh-grader.

Nowadays, the 5-foot-8 senior Belich isn’t much bigger and is still quite quiet, but she’s the one encouraging her junior-high teammates in hopes of continuing her prep career.

Belich blasted 27 kills to lead all players and, more importantly, her Bulldogs past South Ridge 16-25, 25-21, 25-15, 25-23 in a Section 7A volleyball quarterfinal last Friday in Culver. The entertaining event — including plenty of lengthy volleys — was a rematch of last year’s small-school final, which Carlton also won on its way to the state tournament.

If the Bulldogs (20-10) want to make it to state again — a potential school-record third consecutive trip — they would have to win Wednesday’s semifinal with Cherry (as the Pine Journal goes to press), as well as Saturday’s 4 p.m. final at Duluth Denfeld.

That’s surely doable, but — unlike their past two state runs — Carlton looks different. Sure, Belich and fellow seniors Hannah Benson (23 set assists last Friday), Lindsay Ermatinger (nine kills) and Amanda Groth are all key cogs, but a trio of eighth-graders have been stepping up to the plate as well.

Last week against the Panthers, for example, Alaina Bennett was again big on the net, while Brynn Mickle orchestrated 14 set assists. And Taylor Nelson had a mind-numbing 32 digs in defending South Ridge’s senior attack.

“Even though they are much younger, they have the skills to play with us and are doing a great job of it,” Belich said.

On display last week after an opening-set loss, the Bulldogs showed their youth doesn’t affect their poise in the playoffs. A 7-1 run to start the second set put the Panthers (21-6) down, and while sets three and four were tight, Carlton prevailed.

“They’ve been there before and they played like it,” said South Ridge coach Brad Olesiak, whose team was paced by senior tandem Mallory Thibault and Lindsey Janke’s 22 and 10 kills, along with senior Krystal Karppinen’s 45 assists. “[Carlton] doesn’t lose their composure; we got frustrated.”

Frustrating teams has been commonplace for the Bulldogs the past two seasons. Soukkala said many likely wouldn’t have thought the team would dominate again this fall, “but here we are again,” she noted.

A victory Wednesday would likely pit the third-seeded Bulldogs against No. 1 unbeaten Cook County, barring a win via upset-minded Mountain Iron-Buhl, seeded seventh. The Vikings, at 23-0, swept Carlton on Oct. 8 in Grand Marais.

“That motivates us,” Belich said of the loss a month ago.

“They’d like a shot at Cook County again,” Soukkala said. “But it’s one game at a time. We’re looking at Cherry first.”

NOTE: Carlton beat Cherry