by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The Zimmerman Thunder are one win from the state tournament, farther than they’ve ever gone, after repelling St. Anthony Village 3-1 in the Section 5AA semifinals at home Thursday evening.
“Words can’t explain it,” gushed four-year veteran Nikki O’Keefe, misty-eyed, about the thrill of having a shot at state. The 5-9 outside hitter was a big reason why, as she delivered a stellar home-court finale of 15 kills, 12 digs, 2 aces, and 2 blocks.
The Thunder had a torrid start but the Huskies showed their teeth starting in game two. The scores were 25-6, 25-23, 12-25, 25-16.
Zimmerman (21-7), seeded No. 2 among 15 teams in the section, takes on No. 1 Maple Lake (18-11) on Saturday, 7 p.m., in Rockford. Maple Lake earned the top seed by virtue of a 3-0 win over Zimmerman in the season opener.
“That was the first week of the season. We are different team now,” said senior setter Amanda Meleen. “But, so are they. So it could go either way. But we want revenge!”
Brooke Borchardt added 10 kills for the Thunder, Gabby Antolak 7 and Amber Magnuson 3. Meleen provided 32 assists, 9 digs and a block. Borchardt also notched 3 aces and 4 blocks. Bailey Bircher-Keymes, who became the libero for playoffs, led with 23 digs and served 4 aces. Cassie Ortberg made 10 digs and Morgan Feldick 7.
“I think it was our passing that did it tonight,” said Meleen. “If you pass well enough, you can beat anyone.”
For the Huskies, Sara DeMars made 7 kills, Jenna Goldsmith 5 and Breanna Bergquist 4 Vic Bollensen made 16 digs and Kelly Lawson 15. Bergquist and Lawson made 2 kill blocks each.
The Thunder scored the first nine points and won game one 25-6. Borchardt menaced the Huskies at the net, O’Keefe boomed a couple aces, the passes were on the mark, the digs were all made, the opponents looked jittery and overwhelmed.
“That was the best game we have played all season, definitely, because they are a good team,” said Meleen. “I think it was all the intensity in the gym. It was really loud in there.”
But the Huskies lived up to their names as it was a dogfight for the next hour or so.
“We managed to take them out of their game early,” said Belka. “But they are a good team and you knew that they were going to bring it.”
“We got off to a really slow start,” said Huskies coach Kari Francis, “but the nice thing about volleyball is, you can say ‘That one is over and done with,’ and unlike other sports, you can start over at zero after a bad game. Momentum is everything in volleyball.”
The Huskies led 14-10 in game two before Bircher-Keymes turned it around for the Thunder serving eight straight points, four of them aces.
Down 18-14, the Huskies scrambled back, after their 6-2 middle Breanna Bergquist stuff-blocked the Thunder’s best hitters, O’Keefe and Bergquist, in succession. The visitors took they lead back twice.
The Thunder got a big break with the score 23-23 when SAV got a kill down the side but the ball grazed the antennae. Up 24-23, the Thunder got the 25th point thanks to a diving save by Ortberg that kept the ball alive until the Huskies hit into the net seconds later.
“It was really too bad we couldn’t pull that one out,” said Francis.
Indeed, it could have changed the outcome because game three was all Huskies. The Huskies took a big early lead and won 25-12, growing in confidence and aggression and passing the jitters across the net to the Thunder.
“We had to keep up a positive attitude,” said O’Keefe. “We could not do it without a positive attitude. They are a good team and are going to fight hard no matter what.”
The Thunder shook it off and started game four with kills from Magnuson and Antolak. But it stayed close up to 13-13. Then the Thunder got another long run, seven straight this time with Morgan Feldick serving, for a 20-13 lead that was too much for the visitors to overcome.
“It’s all about placement, finding someone to pick on,” said Belka about the strings by Bircher-Keymes and Feldick.
Said O’Keefe: “I think we had more enthusiasm at the end. We wanted this so bad.”
Reflected Francis: “Zimmerman capitalized on a lot of our mistakes. We didn’t pass and play defense well enough, and Zimmerman did.”
Maple Lake shook off No. 4 Breck 25-23, 23-25, 25-18, 25-14 to reach the finals. The Irish, who are the defending section champion, beat the Thunder 25-20, 25-21, 25-15, on Aug. 30, their sixth match and Zimmerman’s second.
Said Belka: “Maple Lake has real good ball control. They make very few mistakes. The have two nice outside hitters. But that was a long time ago. We’ve got a shot.”