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Panthers tested at North Star nets
September 6, 2019

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Rugby High's Lady Panthers traveled to Cando Tuesday night for their first win of the fall season, where the North Star Bearcats tested their mettle in five sets.

Brooke Blessum started the evening off strong with three kills before Kelly Swanson added a point of her own to the board, but North Star's Bearcats roared back when Jasmine Heisler found an inside corner near the Panthers' front line.

Rugby seemed to contain the damage done by the Bearcats for most of the first game. As the first set continued, the Lady Panthers' lead stretched to 11-4 before North Star closed the gap to 15-16, thanks in part to a series of kills unleashed by Bearcat Danielle Hagler. As Rugby pulled ahead, the Bearcats stayed on their heels, keeping fans on both sides on the edge of their seats as points climbed into the low twenties, and North Star threatened to overtake Rugby when they closed the gap a final time to 21-23. An out of bounds North Star serve and a Brooke Blessum block sewed up the first set for the Panthers.

The close shave victory sent the Bearcats back to the court ready to fight in the second set. After the first point went to Rugby, the Lady Panthers kept a narrow lead for most of the game, but struggled after North Star tied the score 19 all. The Bearcats took their fight to the net and pulled ahead after the game went into the seats with a Panther attempt to keep the ball in bounds.

After another kill attempt for the Bearcats went out of bounds the Panthers trailed 20-21, later tying the score again 22-22. North Star pulled ahead again when Heisler put one away in the inside left corner of Panther territory, and a calculated risk by Rugby to let a North Star serve fly by in hopes it would land out of bounds went wrong. With a 25-24 North Star lead, an ace sent Sarah Blessum diving in vain to give the Bearcats a 26-24 win.

The third set saw the Bearcats' momentum continue, with every point a battle and the score margins low. Kills by both Brooke Blessum and North Star's Hagler kept both teams in the air and diving to the floor as they attempted blocks. North Star jumped ahead with a commanding 13-5 lead early in the game. The Panthers struggled back to close the gap to trail the Bearcats 20-22. After another kill and Bearcat error took the score to 24-21 North Star, Rugby Coach Jessica Fritz called a timeout to regroup, but a Bearcat ace followed to put another game in the North Star win category.

The Lady Panthers weren't ready to leave in defeat, however.

More Brooke Blessum kills and assists from her cousin, Sarah Blessum brought the Lady Panthers back. Middle hitter Bella McCabe brought the battle to the net with kills of her own, and the Lady Panthers managed to pull ahead each time the Bearcats threatened. As the fourth set wound up, this time with the Panthers leading 24-22, the Bearcats called a final timeout before game point. A North Star return attempt went out of bounds, and the Panthers won, 25-22.

Although North Star scored first in the tiebreaking set, the Panthers managed to pull ahead and maintain a narrow lead, despite a kill battle between Brooke Blessum and North Star's Hagler. The final set finished late in the evening with a 15-13 Panther win.

Right side Panther player Aly Mundahl told the Tribune later, "We had to try our best and not get down so we could keep going. I think that's what helped us throughout the whole game."

Sarah Blessum, who logged an impressive 43 assists for the game, said of North Star, "They're a really good team. It was a really fun game to see where we are, because we lost to North Star last season. So, it was a good game to step up and see the younger girls, and see where we are this season."

"It's fun to play them," Coach Fritz said of North Star, "Especially when we're having one of those years when we know we can play better, it's a good game to get us started and get our feet wet."

"North Star has a tough region," Fritz added. "They are in the region with Langdon also, so they're always in the top of their region. When they get past Langdon, they're one of the top teams to watch in the state."

"We know Danielle Hagler is one of the better hitters in the state, even last year as a freshman. We kind of knew that going into it. The girls spent a lot of time in the summer also playing against them. We played some league stuff with them. We just knew we had to be strong defensively, and if we got our defense going, we could get our offense going, and that would blend into a high-quality game," Fritz noted.

As for Rugby's top hitter Brooke Blessum, Fritz said, "Brooke is a strong hitter for us. We couldn't do it, though, without our passers and our setters. Sarah had over 40 assists last night. Brooke had over 30 kills. They just played really well. It's fun to play those long matches sometimes because you can just see the depth of your team and their endurance and how they can handle those tough situations."

Fritz added, "We have some solid players on our team, but we're looking at getting that from everybody. We expect everybody to participate. It's those little things, like making sure when they serve, their serves are over the net. No matter what your position is, even if you're sitting on the bench, you're communicating with your teammates. If you know it's going to go long, or it's falling short, you've got to communicate that."

The Lady Panthers travel to Bottineau today for the Bottineau Invite tournament.

The Lady Panther kill totals were: Brooke Blessum, 32; Bella McCabe, 10; Brooke Anderson, 6 and Kelly Swanson, 4. Sarah Blessum had 43 assists, while Aly Mundahl had 4 assists.

North Star totals were: Danielle Hagler, 34 kills, 3 blocks, 2 service aces and 14 digs; Jasmine Heisler, 7 kills and 14 digs; Garyn Hamre, 3 kills, 2 blocks, 2 service aces and 7 digs; Sydney Staus, 1 kill, 1 block; Olivia Reiser , 5 kills, 2 service aces, 17 assists and 7 digs; Lindsey Nyhagen, 1 kill, 3 service aces, 30 assists and 10 digs; Gracie Miller, 3 service aces, 1 assist, 14 digs; Madison Peters, 5 digs.

Stats courtesy of Grand Forks Herald via Nancy Reiser of North Star Schools

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