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Bulldogs bow out to perfect Cook County

Carlton senior Lindsay Ermatinger makes a kill past the defense of Cook County's Meredith Sutton during the Section 7A championship match Saturday. Dave Harwig/ 1 / 3
Carlton senior Macy Belich gets a kill past Cook County's Emily Jacobsen during Saturday's Section 7A volleyball championship match in Duluth. Dave Harwig/ 2 / 3
Carlton senior Hannah Benson sets a ball against Cook County during Saturday's Section 7A championship match in Duluth. Dave Harwig/ 3 / 3

DULUTH—The Carlton volleyball team had won the last two Section 7A titles and, after breezing by Cook County in last weekend’s first set, looked poised for a third.

The unbeaten Vikings, however, lived up to their record.

Meredith Sutton recorded the biggest block of the season when the sophomore used two hands to score last Saturday’s final — and state tournament-clinching — point in keeping Cook County at a perfect 25-0 with a 16-25, 25-18, 25-19, 25-23 victory over the Bulldogs at Duluth Denfeld High School.

Instants after her two-handed stuff, Sutton celebrated mightily with her court-storming teammates. For the first time in Cook County school’s history, the volleyball team from near the Canadian border are section champions and off to today’s Class A state tournament at the Xcel Energy Center (Nov. 12).

“We’re really excited — just pumped,” said a smiling Sutton, outside their buzzing locker room after the game. “We’ve worked so well together. This is so awesome. I’m still freaking out.”

Despite their perfect 25-for-25 record, top-seeded Cook County seemed to be freaking out early against the two-time champion Bulldogs (21-11). While third-seeded Carlton played every bit like the champs, the Vikings were often out of sorts and unable to sustain any momentum in the first set.

“I think Cook County was kind of standing around and looked like deer in the headlights to begin the game,” said Bulldogs coach Barb Soukkala. “They made a lot of mistakes and were like ‘Oh boy, we’re in the big show.’”

Yet, like they have all season, Cook County found their footing, and they ground out second- and third-set wins, only to win the fourth after being down 23-20 and scoring the final five points, capped by Sutton’s block, before the jubilation began.

On opening day of deer hunting, it seemed all of Grand Marais — many dressed head-to-toe in royal blue — was in attendance. And once the Vikings raised their trophy, the fans soon swarmed the floor for celebratory photos afterward.

“When we started to go undefeated, it was like this was a dream come true,” said Cook County coach Pam Taylor, in her 33rd year since taking the helm in 1982. “But never could I have imagined we would be 25-0 going into the state tournament. These girls have heart, guts and determination. It’s awesome. I still have to make a couple phone calls here.”

Taylor and her players have been handling a lot of phone calls this week. From countless congratulatory messages, to setting up buses to hotels and more, the North Shore town has been nothing but support for Taylor and her team. According to the Duluth News Tribune Wednesday, there was an official proclamation from Grand Marais Mayor Jay Arrowsmith-DeCoux, proclaiming this Cook County Volleyball Week.

The Vikings and their fans, on three charter buses, headed to the Xcel Wednesday morning. Unseeded, they got no favors in their opening 1 p.m. quarterfinal, today, Thursday, drawing No. 1 Faribault Bethlehem Academy (23-7). The defending state champion Cardinals are daunting, but Cook County, led by their eight seniors, is looking forward to the challenge ahead.

Expect nerves early, but the Vikings to settle in. Taylor said the 260-mile, four-plus-hour drive to St. Paul will be fine.

“We’re used to the long ones,” Taylor said with a laugh.

Carlton is familiar with that bus trip, but won’t be making the “three-peat” they were seeking. Their six graduates include the hard-hitting Macy Belich and setter Hannah Benson, both who have played varsity since seventh grade.

“I’ll remember it forever,” Benson said afterward.

“Over the years, this has become my second family,” said Belich, who will play volleyball at either St. Scholastica or Wisconsin-River Falls next fall. “It’s hard to grasp I won’t get to put my No. 7 jersey and shoes back on again for Carlton.”

Soukkala, meanwhile, in her 38th season with the program, proudly addressed her team in the locker room.

“I told them to keep their chins up and not to hang their heads,” she said. “No one expected us to get back here again.”