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Prep volleyball: Carlton spikes Deer River in 7A final

The Carlton volleyball team celebrates its Section 7A championship Saturday, Nov. 3. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal1 / 3
The Carlton volleyball team celebrates their Section 7A championship win over Deer River in front of fans Saturday, Nov. 3, in Hibbing. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 3
Carlton's Alaina Bennett makes a kill between Deer River's Allison Rasley (18) and Natalie Bakkedahl during the Saturday, Nov. 3, Section 7A championship game in Hibbing. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 3

HIBBING — Rather than set their clocks back an hour in the middle of the night, Deer River volleyball players would have preferred to recognize the end of daylight saving time at about 5 p.m. Saturday.

Carlton's Brynne Mickle sets a ball during the Section 7A championship volleyball match Nov. 3. Dave Harwig / Pine JournalIt was then that Carlton was putting the finishing touches on a methodical sweep of Deer River in a drama-free Section 7A final that concluded 54 minutes after it started. At that moment, the Warriors wouldn't have minded pushing the clocks at Lincoln Elementary School back to 4 p.m. and getting a do-over.

The Bulldogs started strong and never relented.

"We knew if we pushed right away that we wouldn't have to go any longer than we wanted to," Carlton middle hitter Alaina Bennett said. "We wanted to get off the floor as fast as we could. Didn't have many opportunities for us to mess that up."

Thanks to the 25-15, 25-19, 25-9 victory, Carlton (28-2) is back in the state tournament for the first time since back-to-back appearances in 2013-14. The Bulldogs made it look easy, too, something they've grown accustomed to.

And that's saying something considering Deer River features one of the region's best players in Hope Schjenken, a 5-foot-10 middle and Minnesota Duluth commit. The Warriors' offense runs through the senior, but Carlton effectively neutralized Schjenken, who was atypically erratic. She finished with eight kills, well below her season average.

Longtime coach Barb Soukkala was asked if she could remember a run like the one the Bulldogs are on heading to Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Not one prone to hyperbole, Soukkala — wearing a shirt that, on the back, read "nobody cares, work harder" — said simply, "No."

Who's to argue?

Carlton has won 22 matches in a row. Of those, 20 have been sweeps. In fact, the Bulldogs' only losses this season came the same day, Sept. 15, at North Branch's tournament.

With credentials like that, you'd expect Carlton to take the floor sporting a bunch of 6-footers. Hardly. Its junior-dominated rotation won't intimidate many opponents with its size. Taylor Nelson, for example, who led the Bulldogs on Saturday with 12 kills, is a 5-foot-4 hitter.

What Carlton lacks in height, it makes up for with quickness, grit and balance.

Carlton's Ava Grondahl (11) and Taylor Nelson defend against a kill attempt. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal"You look at our stats and about four or five of our hitters have three, four, five, six, seven, eight kills (each night)," Soukkala said. "We try to spread it out a lot, go around their block, pick our spots."

Added Bennett, who totaled eight kills and five blocks: "We're scrappy. We go for everything and we don't let the ball touch the floor."

Even against Schjenken and her 6-foot teammate, Natalie Bakkedahl, the Bulldogs were the aggressors. They never trailed in the opening game. In the middle one, Bennett helped them pull away with a pair of well-placed drop shots that found openings and made it 22-17. In the third, Nelson keyed a 7-0 run with a pair of kills and a block as Carlton turned this into an extended coronation.

Nelson epitomizes the mindset of the Bulldogs' attack.

"When we hit, we go down swinging as hard as we can no matter what," she said. "If it comes flying back at us, then we do it again. We don't quit."

While Carlton breezed the section playoffs unblemished, Deer River (18-9), a fourth seed, used some grit of its own to reach the final. The Warriors rallied from a 2-1 deficit to upset the No. 1 seed in their subsection, North Woods, in a five-game quarterfinal, then knocked off No. 2 Cromwell-Wright in the semifinals.

Saturday, though, they were a "little slow," according to coach Leigh Ayers, whose club finally ran out of gas.

"It's hard to sustain that momentum," she said.

Abby Mickle added eight kills for Carlton, while her sister, Brynne Mickle, had 38 set assists.

The Bulldogs will find out when the state tournament brackets are revealed Sunday morning who they play Thursday, and at what time, in the Class A quarters.

Carlton def. Deer River 25-15, 25-19, 25-9 — C (28-2): Brynne Mickle 38SA; Taylor Nelson 12K; Abby Mickle 8K; Alaina Bennett 8K, 5B. DR (18-9): Noelle Grose 14SA; Breeze Bergland 9SA, 7D; Kaity Martin 6K; Hope Schjenken 8K, 13D; Natalie Bakkedahl 7K; Allison Rasley 15D; Lilly Drotts 15D.