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Section 7AA VB: Rush City holds off Esko in Section 7AA five-set thriller

Eskomos rally from 2-0 deficit only for Tigers to bounce back and claim first state tournament berth.

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Rush City's Lydia Bengtson attacks the double block of Esko's Gabby Martenson (15) and Emerson Harker (7) during the first set of the Section 7AA volleyball championship game on Saturday at Hermantown High School.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune
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HERMANTOWN — Rush City volleyball coach Eric Telander was taken aback when told that his team closed out Esko with a nine-point run.

“Nine? Nine! Wow,” Telander said, then laughed. “I don’t realize much during the night to be honest with you. It’s all a blur, but we’ll take it.”

Yes, the Tigers will.

Rush City survived a seesaw match to defeat Esko 3-2 (25-18, 25-16, 19-25, 14-25, 15-7) in the Section 7AA volleyball championship Saturday night, Nov. 5, before about 700 at Hermantown High School.

The Tigers (27-1) advance to play in their first state tournament Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul against an opponent to be determined once seedings are completed.

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Despite the lofty record, including 24 straight victories dating to Aug. 26, Rush City isn’t ranked in Class AA.

“Nope, we’re not, and we like it that way,” Telander said. “No respect, and we’re going to go to the Xcel and we’re going to play our best.”

Esko (21-9) certainly played its best Saturday but got off to another slow start, something that had been the Eskomos’ modus operandi, or perhaps, more accurately, Achilles’ heel, this season.

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Esko's Kyra Johnson attacks during the second set of the Section 7AA volleyball championship game vs. Rush City on Saturday at Hermantown High School.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Esko said it wasn’t intimidated by Rush City’s near-unblemished record, feeling the Eskomos’ schedule was tougher, but for whatever reason, the bright lights and big stage, Esko quickly found itself in a 2-0 rut, and the first two sets weren’t even close.

Then, something changed. Esko rallied. Big time.

“I was expecting it,” said Gabby Martenson, one of six seniors on the Esko roster. “A lot of times we start off slow, but once we start putting our energy together, we pick everything up.”

Martenson was a big reason why.

Martenson, with her 14 kills, kept Esko from losing, then when things started rolling, 5-foot-9 junior Kyra Johnson took over. Johnson finished with 16 kills as Esko pulled away to win the third set and then completely dominated the fourth set as Rush City looked completely gassed.

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Martenson said the Eskomos were confident after that, perhaps too confident.

“I think the crowd might have gotten in our head. There was a lot going on,” she said. “We started getting stressed out, and their serving got to us. I think we maybe weren’t expecting them to come out as strong as they did, and we just kind of crashed after that.

“But I’m proud of this team for making it this far. I love my teammates. They’re a great group of girls.”

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Rush City's Lydia Bengtson attacks the Esko double block of Kaitlin Lattner (6) and Emerson Harker (7) during the first set of the Section 7AA volleyball championship on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Hermantown High School.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

This match had more swings than Playfront Park, so the final set was rather fitting. But after Esko took a 7-6 lead in the fifth set on a Johnson spike, that was it. It was all Rush City after that.

Former Duluth Denfeld coach Pete Stasiuk, in his second year as Esko’s coach, said that nine-point run wasn’t without some friendly rulings in Rush City’s favor. Then, the proverbial snowball effect.

Stasiuk guided the Eskomos to eight more wins than last year’s 13-15 squad. He said his players got acclimated to his system, had more experience and put the work in.

“They put the effort in to come back, and it’s what we’ve done all year,” Stasiuk said. “We never really gave up at any point. We weren’t intimidated. We came back, and we came back strong. We were playing the way we wanted to play, but then a few breaks certainly didn’t go our way.”

Esko, which got 37 set assists from Kaitlin Lattner, was hoping to qualify for its fourth state volleyball tournament and first since 2011.

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Lydia Bengston had 15 kills to lead Rush City, Veronica Hemming and Autumn Stream added 10 kills apiece and Cora Sayotovich paced the offense with 46 set assists.

Sayotovich’s biggest impact, however, came from the end line during that nine-point run, where she served the Tigers to victory, ending it, rather fittingly, with an ace.

“Yes, it would have made it more painful, with our record and everything else, losing this,” Telander said. “There were a lot of emotions going through my mind in those third, fourth and fifth sets. We could have had pity on ourselves and crashed but we flipped a switch in the fifth and just decided we’re going to have more grit than that.

“Cora Sayotovich missed a couple serves in the middle of the match and was hard on herself, so for her to go out there and do that at the end? Amazing.”

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Esko setter Kaitlin Lattner spots Emerson Harker during the second set of the Section 7AA volleyball championship on Saturday at Hermantown High School.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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