Volleyball: Thunder trip Park Center in grueling 5-game match, reach semi’s

Zimmerman players (from left) Amber Magnessen, Emily Garmen, Cassandra Ortberg, Morgan Feldick, and Amanda Meleeen hugged after winning game five 16-14. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

by Bruce Strand, Sports editor

The Zimmerman Thunder, accustomed to tight games, survived a tense, marathon duel with Park Center by a razor-thin margin Tuesday evening in the Section 5AA playoffs.

The No. 6 seeded Thunder prevailed 26-24, 23-25, 25-20, 20-25, 16-14 over the No. 3 Pirates and  reached the section semifinals for the first time in the program’s history.

Cassandra Ortberg (1) and Brooke Borchardt (12) put up a block against Park Center's Julia Zolnosky. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

“What put us over the top was that we has so many close games like this all year, and toward the end of the season we started to learn how to win those close ones,” said coach Rita Belka. “We only had one blowout (loss) all year. Otherwise all the matches were like this.”

Brooke Borchardt, 6-1 sophomore, smacked down 25 kills and Nicki O’Keefe, 5-9 junior, delivered 21 more, while senior setter Amanda Meleen put up 48 assists. Janae Mettling, 5-7 senior, added 11 kills.

The Thunder (12-14) had to rally from a 22-24 deficit in game one and from 13-14 in game five to upset the Pirates (16-11-1).

“We were Positive Pollies! ” said Emily Garmen, senior libero who made 23 digs. “The whole season we lost a lot of close games but by the end of the year we’ve been able to overcome those.”

O’Keefe, who also made 15 digs, said the harrowing match was  a blast.

“It’s the best kind to play in,” she beamed.

Asked what keyed the win, she said, “Knowing where to place the ball, and a good attitude.”

The Thunder, who beat Milaca in the first round, are one of four teams left among 16 in the section. They play at No. 2 seed Fridley (20-9) on Thursday, 7 p.m. The other semifinal will have No. 4 DeLaSalle (12-16) at No. 1 Maple Lake (23-5). The finals will be played at Rockford on Saturday, 7 p.m.

Park Center  had a persistent attack led by two outside hitters, Bethany Lovhaug, 5-11 freshman, and Julia Zolnosky, 5-7 junior.

The Thunder almost lost the match at the serving stripe, missing a ghastly 18 of them, but executed well enough in the other phases of the game to survive.

The fifth game was tied 10-10 when Morgan Inman, who had missed four serves, went to the line and floated a couple over the net, one of them sinking for an ace, to help the Thunder take a 12-10 lead. But after a Park Center time out, she buried another into the net.

Amanda Meleen served for the Thunder. (Photo by Bruce Strand)

The Pirates pushed ahead 14-13 but O’Keefe smacked down a cross-court kill to keep the Thunder alive. Melene went to the stripe and served for the last two points, both on Pirate errors — a spike that was long by about a foot, then a muffed serve-receive.

Joyous leaping and hugging by the Thunder ensued. They’ll have a day to enjoy the victory, then get right back to work in hopes of pulling off another upset on Thursday.

The Thunder had close loses to Mora and first-place Little Falls to close conference play but also won two of three nail-biters in their last invitational tournament. Their season log is dotted with scores like 25-23, 26-24, and 29-27.