by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Zimmerman’s volleyball season ended one win short of the state tournament with a 3-1 loss to Maple Lake on Saturday evening, with nine seniors who made the Thunder relevant bowing out.
The top-seeded Irish repeated as Section 5AA champion by prevailing 25-19, 20-25, 25-16, 25-16 over the No. 2 seed and first-time finalist Thunder at Rockford.
The Thunder girls had a good cry but could take consolation in what was by far the best campaign in the program’s 10-year history.
“We started out with high hopes, which were just hopes then, but became reality,” said Morgan Iman, senior co-captain. “We came on from the beginning of the season to the end. It was was fun to see such improvement, and to see what Zimmerman volleyball has become the last two years.”
The Thunder finished 21-8, including 3-1 in playoffs.
This was the program’s first winning season. Previous best was 14-14. In the program’s first five years, records like 1-25 and 3-23 were the norm. Things picked up when Rita Belka, formerly coach at Delano, took over as Thunder head coach. Her five teams have gone 8-17, 9-17, 14-14, 12-15 and now 21-8. Last year’s team, basically the current one but a year younger, reached the section semifinals for the first time, and they built on that small step this fall.
“We knew they had it in them, from day one,” said Belka, “We just needed to find the right combination, and down the stretch, we did.”
Maple Lake (22-7) was a clear winner, although the Thunder gave them a better match than when they lost 3-0 to the Irish in the first week of the season.
“The first game, we came out with may too much adrenaline. Everything was long,” said Belka. “The second game we cleaned that up. The third game, it started to got away from us, mainly because of too many of our own errors … Maple Lake didn’t make many mistakes.”
The Thunder had ousted Blake, Rockford and St. Anthony Village to reach the finals.
“The kids were very excited and not really nervous,” said Belka, about playing in a section final. “They just wanted to get out there and play. I almost wish it had been a school day.”
Nikki O’Keefe logged 14 kills and 12 digs in the last match of a stellar four-year tenure on the varsity.
Other seniors were Amber Magnuson (4 kills), Cassie Ortberg (3 kills, 7 digs), Amanda Meleen (29 assists, 8 digs, 2 kills on tips), Morgan Feldick (8 digs), Bailey Bircher-Keymes (9 digs, one ace), Inman, and Alyssa and Bailey Bright.
“We knew from the time they were ninth graders they had the talent, if they could put it together,” said Belka. “It’s an awesome group. They put the team before themselves. They came in every day and worked hard, and as a coach I appreciate that.”
Brooke Borchardt, 6-foot-1 junior who notched 8 kills and 9 digs, added, “They are awesome. I don’t know what we are going to do without them next year.”
Still dabbing at her tears, Borchardt reflected, “This is as far as Zimmerman has gotten, so it’s definitely something we accomplished together. This is definitely a season I will always remember.”
The other underclassman who played a lot was 6-foot junior Gabby Antolak, who had 3 kills and 3 digs.
Keeping pressure on the Thunder were Maple Lake’s trio of medium-sized attackers as 5-foot-8 Jenny Puncochar delivered 13 kills, 5-foot-8 Shelby Rachel 11 and 5-foot-10 Dani Hudek eight. Rachel also led with 18 digs. Firing four aces each were Emily Webb and Carissa Knott. The Irish out-served the Thunder by a big margin with 14 aces to 3. Each had 13 misses.
The Thunder had an early lead in all four games but could only keep it up in game two.
The Irish took game one with a steady game including three serve aces and no misses, while the hopped-up Thunder were long on four serves and five spikes. In game two the Thunder played their brand of volleyball throughout, and started to pull away at the end helped by some key spikes by Magnuson off Meleen’s sets.
The Irish regained control the final two games while the Thunder had some jittery stretches with shaky passing, balls dropping into gaps, and hits into the net. The Irish pulled away 21-13 in game four when Jen Pomije served for five straight points.
“Our passing kind of went down the last two games,” said Belka. “They are good servers and were able to take us out of that (passing). What it came down to was, we didn’t play our best, and you’ve got to play your best to beat the best.”
Irish coach Marty Kiebel said his team “played really good defense” and stuck to its game plan.
“I think it helped that we had been here before — not that they (Zimmerman) played like a team that hadn’t been here before,” said Kiebel, who was just getting started at Maple Lake when Belka had a strong program with conference rival Delano.
“Rita is a fantastic coach and had a great history at Delano before she took over a team in its formative stages there. To take them to the section finals in five years, that’s a tribute to Rita.”