ST. PAUL - Northland volleyball teams haven't experienced much success at the state tournament.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2009 to find the last local club to win its first-round match (Hibbing). And not since Carlton in 2014 has the region won so much as a single game in the opener.
So when the Northland's lone rep at Xcel Energy Center this week, Carlton, whistled to a 22-15 lead over Ada-Borup in a Class A quarterfinal this afternoon, that stretch of futility was in danger. Until Bailee Brommenschenkel capped a 7-0 Cougars run by rolling the ball along the top of the net, from which it dropped over and found an uncovered sliver of court on the Bulldogs' side. The play highlighted Ada-Borup's comeback victory in game one, which eventually led to a 27-25, 25-27, 25-20, 25-12 triumph over Carlton.
The fifth-seeded Bulldogs (28-3) resiliently rebounded to forge a 1-1 tie, but that merely compounded the agony of the early missed opportunity. They could have been up 2-0 and eyeing today's championship semifinals. Instead, they're in the consolation round against New York Mills (30-3) at 1 p.m. Friday.
"That was disappointing," Carlton coach Barb Soukkala said. "When you're up by that much, you expect to finish it off. But they came storming back."
The story - minus the ending - was similar in the second game, when the Bulldogs built advantages of 7-0, 18-12 (thanks to an 8-0 run) and 24-19 only to watch unfazed Ada-Borup rally in front, 25-24. Samantha Matarelli's ace serve sealed it for Carlton, but not before this reality was hammered home: Taking a lead on the Cougars isn't all that difficult, but maintaining it is a nightmare.
No. 4 Ada-Borup (31-1) has proven adept at bouncing back all season long.
"These kids are the cardiac kids," coach Jim Lee said of the Cougars, who take on top-seeded Minneota in Friday's semifinals.
Neither team hit particularly well on the red-and-blue sport court that replaced the home ice of the Minnesota Wild. With two matches going on simultaneously - separated by a supersized curtain hanging beneath the Jumbotron - the atmosphere at state volleyball is always organized chaos.
Ada-Borup, a perennial tournament participant, made the necessary adjustments, controlling the ball and passing it better as the match progressed, which allowed junior hitters Kora Kritzberger and Brommenschenkel to swing freely. The All-State Kritzberger recorded a match-high 21 kills, while Brommenschenkel added 17.
Abby Mickle led Carlton with 17 kills. The Bulldogs, who don't have any seniors on their roster, showed their own bounce-back ability when, after Ada-Borup used a 10-3 run to pull ahead 16-8 in game three, they responded by scoring nine of the next 11 points to whittle their deficit to 18-17. But the Cougars surged to the finish line, then dominated the finale.
"I think we could have won that (match), which is a bummer," said Carlton junior outside hitter Taylor Nelson, who had 13 kills and 20 digs.
Height certainly isn't a strength for the Bulldogs, and that was evident by their hitting percentage of just .012 against Ada-Borup. In the regular season and even through the section playoffs, Soukkala said, Carlton was able to finesse its way to wins if needed. And the Bulldogs won in bunches - the 22-match winning streak they carried to St. Paul included 20 sweeps. But playing on this stage in St. Paul is a different animal, the caliber of opponent higher.
"The first few games, we did a lot of tipping," Soukkala said. "We didn't hit, and you have to hit. Earlier in the year, against some of the teams we play, we can get away with tipping. But not against Ada-Borup."
Ada-Borup def. Carlton 27-25, 25-27, 25-20, 25-12 - AB (31-1): Mariah McKeever 7K, 15D; Kora Kritzberger 21K, 18D, 5B; Bailee Brommenschenkel 17K; Ivy Johnson 45SA, 6D; Breanna Qualley 25D. C (28-3): Brynne Mickle 29SA, 13D; Taylor Nelson 13K, 20D; Alaina Bennett 6K, 10D, 6B; Abby Mickle 17K, 20D; Samantha Matarelli 7D.