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Nelson, Bulldogs sweep past Hawks

Carlton's Ava Grondahl makes a kill past Hermantown's Natalie Arntson. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 4
Carlton's Taylor Nelson makes a kill past Hermantown's Alana Mayry. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 4
Carlton's Alaina Bennett blocks the kill attempt of Hermantown's Haley Wambach. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 4
Carlton's Abby Mickle makes a kill past Hermantown's Kennedy Barrett during the Monday, Oct. 1, volleyball match. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal4 / 4

CARLTON — Having played soccer until the sixth grade, it was no surprise Monday, Oct. 1, when Taylor Nelson used an abnormal technique to dig a whistling volleyball.

Using her foot.

Late in the second set during a match with visiting Hermantown, the Carlton junior stuck her sneaker out to keep a ball alive, only to pound a winning kill on the ensuing play in helping the Bulldogs by the Hawks 25-23, 25-16, 25-17 in a well-filled Carlton gym.

Several of those fans in attendance were Nelson's close friends from the Cloquet-Carlton girls soccer team, who were impressed with the outside hitter's kick save to make it 24-16 Bulldogs, before Nelson used her fast-swinging right arm to then put the Hawks away.

"I tend to do that a lot," said Nelson, in using her quick-moving feet to save seemingly unplayable balls throughout the season. "If I can't reach it, I have to get something on it, so using my foot is the next quickest option. I try to react to everything I can."

"She's got the drive to get to any ball," added junior classmate Alaina Bennett, who later in the third set was almost booted in the head by another one of Nelson's foot-jabbing attempts. "Taylor's one of the funnest players to play with."

Along with leading all players with 14 kills, the ultra-athletic Nelson, who sports a 23-inch vertical, is also the centerfielder on the two-time state softball team and right winger on the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey team.

She's committed to play women's hockey at Division I Bemidji State University, too.

"Not a lot of players get to do that around here," Bennett said. "She's got the mentality to do her best every single game. She's a great player."

Carlton (21-2) has many players like that. Along with the DI-bound Nelson, Bennett and the Mickle twins — Brynne and Abby — are the catcher, pitcher and shortstop in softball, and posts and guards in basketball.

Thus, they ooze athleticism.

As was evident Monday when the Bulldogs closed the first set on a 6-1 run capped by a thunderous Abby Mickle kill, the second on a 7-1 spurt keyed by Nelson and the third with a loud, gym-wide roar after setter Brynne Mickle's flip over the net landed in the Hawks' vacant center of the court to end the match.

"They're just so competitive — especially those four," said longtime coach Barb Soukkala, now in her 41st season with the program and 26th as head coach. "Even in warm-ups, they don't shut it off."

"We all want the best for each other," added Bennett, who finished with nine kills to aid Abby Mickle's 11 and Brynne Mickle's 42 set assists. "And we all want to win everything."

Meanwhile, Natalie Arntson and Maddy Foster had 10 and 9 kills, respectively for Hermantown (9-10), while Kennedy Barrett and Rachel Menzel added 18 and 15 assists to go with Katie Bergeron and Foster's 18 and 17 digs.

Still, it wasn't enough to scrap around with Carlton, who has won their past 15 matches in a row and 35 of 36 sets — including the Pierz and Mora Invitational titles.

"They just don't make mistakes," said Hermantown coach Sue Wasbotten, in her 21st season — 13th at the helm.

"We just couldn't get over them making their plays," she continued. "And if you get them to take their foot off the gas, you got to take advantage."

That's not often the case with Soukkala's squad that has been playing varsity since they were eighth-graders. Back then, in 2015, they lost the section final, as well last year in five sets to Cook County — by a mere two points.

Bennett said that match is a "driving force" each day, as these Bulldogs look to add to previous program state appearances in 2003, 2004, 2013 and 2014.

"Ever since seventh and eighth grade, we've wanted to be like those teams," said Bennett. "It'd be like a dream come true."

On her way out Monday, Wasbotten stopped Soukkala and said she wants to see her "down at the X."

"They've got a couple years here where they could go," Wasbotten said.

"That's their goal," Soukkala said. "They don't get rattled. And you think it's down, but they never let the ball hit the floor."

Even if that means Nelson has to use her feet a little more.

"That's the best part of volleyball," she said. "To get those ones are the funnest."

Carlton def. Hermantown 25-23, 25-16, 25-17 — C: Taylor Nelson 14 K; Abby Mickle 11 K; Alaina Bennett 9 K; Brynne Mickle 42 SA. H: Natalie Arntson 10 K, 3 B; Maddy Foster 9 K, 16 D; Kennedy Barrett 18 SA; Rachel Menzel 15 SA; Katie Bergeron 18 D.