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Volleyball: Panthers ready for redemption

Ellsworth senior middle hitter Mackenzie Kummer records one of her 16 kills against the Blue Devils on Tuesday, Aug. 28, in the Panthers' 3-0 sweep at Plum City. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia

Nicole VandeBerg's Ellsworth volleyball team can expect to be exposed to the film of their 2017 season-ending loss to St. Croix Central at some point in their current season.

For most of the Panthers' returners, the film will just be a visual reference of the loss that's been in the back of their minds since their 3-1, regional-final loss.

"I think we were disappointed," VandeBerg said of last year's loss. "Winning a regional final was our goal, we were one game shy of that."

If all goes as planned, the memory of last year's disappointing loss will be reconstructed into motivation for the 2018 season, and so far, that's been the case.

"I think they're angry, which is better for us than being sad," VandeBerg said. "We can use that. We will make them watch that game at some point, because I think it makes them mad and then they want to do better. They're not content with that."

The Panthers are desperate to claim redemption for last season, which concluded with a 15-6 record and a second-place finish in the Middle Border Conference, and they're prepared to do so even without 2017 All-Conference senior Morgan Kummer.

"Morgan is one of the best defensive players I've ever seen. The hits look great, but she could get to balls on the court that I've never seen other kids get to," VandeBerg said. "Morgan is the kind of kid it takes two to replace."

Those two players? Mallory Bleeker and Nadia Sigler.

Because of this, the Panthers have switched their defensive system to allow their libero, Nadia Sigler, to play two rotations, which will help fill the hole the loss of Morgan left in the Panthers' defense.

VandeBerg said Bleeker and Sigler have stepped up their game since 2017 and both have both handled the transition well.

"I think they both recognized that it was better for the team, and they both have that personality where they want to play but they want the team to be successful," VandeBerg said. "Nadia has just been everywhere in practice. Her aggressiveness has changed, and I think that helped her get that libero spot, but Mallory is still a key part of our defense."

Sigler admits that she thought Bleeker would be given the libero position, but that she's happy to fill the role. Regardless of her title, she knows how she'll have to step up without Morgan by her side in the back row.

"Morgan was a great leader for us," Sigler said. "We've had to work on our communication and aggressiveness a lot more."

The back row's improved aggressiveness will play a key part in the Panthers' team focus of playing with consistent intensity, which they struggled with in their memorable loss to SCC.

"We sometimes walk onto the court and can't get rolling until Set 2," VandeBerg said. "We need to be able to come right out of the gates and play as well as we can."

For senior Mackenzie Kummer, who's committed to playing Division 1 collegiate ball with the Air Force Academy, this means not just winning every game, but crushing every opponent the comes the Panthers' way.

"I think we're pretty confident in how we're going to do throughout the season," Mackenzie said. "I think that SCC is our biggest competition in the conference right now, and I think we're really focused on playing hard against everyone and showing up for every single game and not underestimating anyone."

The Panthers followed Mackenzie's game plan in their first best-of-five match against the Plum City Blue Devils on Tuesday, Aug. 28, when they claimed dominating set wins of 25-4, 25-5 and 25-9.

Mackenzie led the front row with 16 kills against the Blue Devils, and though the returning All-Conference middle hitter will be the primary go-to weapon for the Panthers' offense this season, VandeBerg expects her team's remaining hitters to fill bigger roles as well.

"Offensively, we have to get a few more kills out of other people," VandeBerg said. "Claire Kummer is back and she now has two years of experience hitting on the outside. She's longer than Morgan, so she has an advantage that way."

The return of experienced setter Kaitlyn Nugent will help hitters such as Avery O'Neil, Alexia Sabby and Brooke Minder adjust to their larger roles and the overall competitive nature of each player won't hurt either.

"They're a fun group, but they're competitive," VandeBerg said. "They want to do well and have that drive in them, which makes a big difference for us. They give us everything they've got, and we couldn't ask for more than that.

"We have Mackenzie for one more year. She's clearly a big part of our team, and to lose her next year is going to be a big thing. So, we know this is the year we need to get better and make a run. They know that, and they want to go further than last year and redeem themselves from that regional final."

"I think that game is in the back of all of our heads," Sigler said. "We just have to think about how it felt to lose that game when we come into every game this season. They've knocked us off twice now, and that makes us want it that much more."

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