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Volleyball: Carlton spikes its way back to state

From left: Carlton juniors Abby Mickle, Taylor Nelson, Brynne Mickle and Alaina Bennett have carried Carlton back to the state volleyball tournament for the first time since 2014. (Tyler Korby/Pine Journal)1 / 4
Carlton's Alaina Bennett presents the Section 7A championship trophy to the Bulldogs' volleyball team following a 3-0 sweep of Deer River in Hibbing on Saturday, Nov. 3. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal2 / 4
Carlton's Ava Grondahl (11) and Taylor Nelson defend against a kill attempt by Deer River's Natalie Bakkedahl during the Section 7A championship game in Hibbing. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal3 / 4
Carlton's Alaina Bennett makes a kill between Deer River's Allison Rasley (18) and Natalie Bakkedahl during the Section 7A championship game in Hibbing on Saturday, Nov. 3. Dave Harwig / Pine Journal4 / 4

Class A State Tournament Quarterfinal

What: Carlton (28-2) vs. Ada-Borup (30-1)

When: 1 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 8

(Consolation and semifinals, Friday, Nov. 9; finals, Saturday, Nov. 10)

Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul

Twitter: @tylerkorby

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CARLTON — With a future collegiate hockey career on the horizon, Taylor Nelson could certainly play her fair share of games on the Xcel Energy Center's ice.

But for the Carlton junior, it's volleyball she'll try first at the spacious home of her favorite NHL team: the Minnesota Wild.

Nelson will be all smiles today when she and her Bulldog teammates take to the bright lights of the professional arena, as Carlton (28-2) collides with Ada-Borup (30-1) in a Class A state volleyball quarterfinal Thursday, Nov. 8, at 1 p.m. in St. Paul.

"That's been my dream come true, to play in there," said Nelson between drills at practice Tuesday, Nov. 6. "It's going to be so surreal."

Along with being a hard-swinging outside hitter for the Bulldogs, Nelson is a sure-handed right winger for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey program, scoring 20 goals and adding 17 assists last winter, bound for Bemidji State University in 2020.

Hockey is Nelson's favorite sport of her three — she also is a centerfielder on the Carlton softball team — and she is certain she'll be ready for the Lumberjacks' season opener Tuesday, Nov. 13, against Brainerd, despite a couple of weeks away from the ice.

And despite being listed at a generous 5-foot-8, the 5-foot-4 Nelson and Co. haven't been letting their lack of height slow them down on the volleyball court.

"We're all competitive," said Nelson, who plays like a jumping bean with her 23-inch vertical. "We all hate losing."

In fact, the hot-streaking Bulldogs haven't lost since Sept. 15, having won 22 consecutive matches — a stretch that features 20 sweeps.

That includes a 3-0 blanking of Deer River in the Section 7A final Saturday, Nov. 3, at Hibbing, where the Warriors' 5-10 senior, Hope Schjenken, a Minnesota Duluth commit, was silenced by an array of aggressive Bulldogs attacking the net.

Nelson led the way with 12 kills, as she and fellow juniors Alaina Bennett and Abby Mickle all average between 10-15 spikes a contest, circulating around Abby's twin sister, Brynne, who quietly orchestrates the potent offense, including 38 set assists in Carlton's trophy-claiming win.

"We don't let the big girls intimidate us," Brynne Mickle said. "We just know we have to play harder."

"We're pretty short," Abby said. "But to us, it's not a problem. We just make up for it with our scrappiness."

Longtime coach Barb Soukkala, now in her 26th season heading the Bulldogs, agreed. Among thinking back to countless acrobatic plays throughout the fall, Soukkala recalled several occasions where the do-it-all Nelson kicked-saved a few rallies by using her foot to ping the ball back over the net.

"They've made some amazing get-ups," Soukkala said.

Now, at their first state tournament since back-to-back trips in 2013 and 2014, the Bulldogs are looking to get their first win on the Xcel's athletic-surfaced floor. That's never happened in Soukkala's four prior southbound trips, she said, but don't count out her crew this time around.

In fact, fifth-seeded Carlton is the first Northland squad to get seeded since Deer River was in 2009.

Their constant presence at the net, Soukkala said, makes them tough to defend.

"That's been the key — the other team doesn't know where we're coming from," Soukkala said. "It's coming from all three directions and the back row."

That certainly will help against fourth-seeded Ada-Borup, as the one-loss Cougars' only defeat came Sept. 15 — the same day as Carlton.

Led by 5-11 hitters Kora Kritzberger (3.7 kills per game) and Bailee Brommenschenkel (2.6), the juniors have paced Ada-Borup to 30 victories, nine of which have come against larger Class AA foes and two in Class AAA.

The Cougars are not unfamiliar to Section 7A representatives either, falling to Cook County last year in a Class A consolation match.

This all doesn't scare the Bulldogs, who have their own state experience, having qualified for the past pair of softball tournaments, taking fifth last June.

Bennett, a 5-foot-9 middle hitter and catcher on the softball team, was business-like with her teammates Tuesday at practice, going through drills on one court, while playing uptempo with the rest of the Bulldogs on the other.

"We don't plan on going down there and letting people push us around," Bennett said. "We want to make a name for ourselves."

Certainly, that's already begun, as hanging above the east wall of their tiny gym, are a number of large, white, Minnesota-shaped banners for each time the small school advances to a state tournament.

"When you look up and see those states up there, you'd like to have your own," Soukkala said. "It's a good group of kids. They've worked hard. They've put in the time."

"We've all been together for a really long time," Brynne Mickle addede. "It's almost like we know what each other are going to do before we do it."

And now, just like the Bulldog teams they looked up to as kids, they get to take in the bright lights of the Xcel.

"As soon as I step out there, I'm sure it'll hit me — all the excitement," Bennett said.

"I'm so excited to get on the court," Brynne Mickle said.

As is Nelson, who couldn't be more thrilled to play at the home of her beloved Wild.

"All of us have wanted to do this for so long," Nelson said. "The state tournament is something that we'll all remember the rest of our lives."

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