by Dean Morrill
Wolfpack Arena was packed with screaming students, proud parents and many other spectators who came out to watch an incredible volleyball match between host Walker-Hackensack-Akeley against Pine River-Backus Tuesday night.
On the line was a Northland Conference championship, something that has eluded the Wolves for many years.
Both teams came in 6-0 in the Northland Conference with the Tigers at 23-3 and WHA 18-4. Pine River did have a 20-match winning streak until they went 3-2 at the Brainerd Tournament Oct. 12. Their two losses were determined on point differential in two sets.
The marathon match lasted more than two hours and did not end until after 10 p.m. The margin of victory in each of the five set was less than four points, with three of sets decided by three or fewer points.
It was a back-and-forth match all night long, evident by each team exchanging victories in each set. The Tigers took the first 26-24, WHA the second 25-22, Tigers the third 25-21, WHA the fourth 25-18 and Pine River the finale 16-14.
Coach Bonnie Sea was proud of her Wolves in how they fought for every point, and even when they fell behind, never quit playing hard.
“The best part of that match was the relentless determination. We served at 97 percent. Played great defense. It was an all-around team effort,” she said. “The girls played so well together, supported each other, and we will evaluate the match and look forward to playoffs.”
Megan Benjamin was a monster at the net, finishing with a career-high and most likely a school-record 33 kills. She also had seven assisted blocks, but it was her final kill attempt that all WHA fans remember the most.
Leading 14-13 in the fifth set, Bri Raddatz set her up perfectly in front of the net, with the ball crashing to the floor in front of the Pine River bench. After a brief hesitation, the line judge called it out, which did not go over well with WHA fans, who all thought it was on the line.
The next two points included a kill attempt into the net by WHA and a Pine River kill that WHA could not dig up that sent the Tigers and their fans into celebration mode.
Katie Sagen also had a nice night at the net with 11 kills, Kali Oelschlager had six, Raddatz five, Aleah Tabbert three and Abi Strandlie two. Raddatz finished the night with 51 assists, moving her to six shy of 3,000 for a career that began in the eighth-grade.
Serving at 97 percent was WHA’s best effort all season. The Tigers served at only 89 percent with 12 errors. The Tigers did have a nine to four advantage in ace serves.
Four of WHA’s seven servers were perfect, with the other three missing only one serve.
Rachel Pitt (25 attempts), Ally Sea (12), Lizzie Naugle (10) and Sagen (four) were perfect, with Raddatz (26), Tabbert (20) and Benjamin (12) missing one. Raddatz led with two aces, with Pitt and Benjamin each having one.
On the defensive side, Sea finished with 34 digs and was phenomenal in the back row. Raddatz had 23 digs, Pitt 20 and Benjamin 12. Strandlie had four assisted blocks and Tabbert three.
In the first set, the Wolves got off to a great start and led 8-4. But once Benjamin rotated to the back row the Tigers were able to score eight straight points off of several kills. WHA’s inability to get good passes to their setter also hampered them as the Tigers took control
The Wolves fought back to tie the match at 21-21. A kill by Benjamin tied the match at 24 apiece, but a Pine River kill and a WHA attacking error gave the Tigers the set.
WHA controlled most of the second set, grabbing an 18-11 lead behind several kills from Benjamin. Oelschlager and Sagen also had some putaways as the Wolves grabbed a 23-18 lead. Two quick aces forced a WHA time out, with Pine River following another ace.
A bad pass and a Benjamin kill put the game away for WHA.
The third set was back-and-forth with several ties and a couple of lead changes. A serve error at 18-21 and a Jaime Johnson kill gave the Tigers a 23-19 lead. WHA scored the next two points on a serve error and Benjamin kill, but a block out of bounds and hit into the net gave Pine River the four-point win.
Behind eight kills by Benjamin, many of which were set up by the nice passing of Sea and setting by Raddatz, the Wolves jumped out to a big lead at 23-15. Benjamin followed with back-to-back kills for an easy win.
The final set was the only one where WHA didn’t jump out to a lead. Trailing 5-9 and with Benjamin in the back row, Oelschlager and Raddatz turned the momentum with a block. After a Pine River kill, Sagen followed with back-to-back kills. A carry by Pine River cut the lead to one and forced a Tigers’ time out.
With Benjamin back in the front row, the scrappy Wolves dug up everything Pine River hit at them. Benjamin had three kills and got an assist from Tabbert on a block for a 14-13 lead.
After a good WHA serve and dig by Sea, Benjamin got a perfect set from Raddatz. The kill was put down, but was called out. Pine River scored the next two points, including the final point after a WHA time out.
These two teams will more than likely meet in the Section 5A playoffs that begin next week, as they should be the top two seeds in their side of the bracket.