Panthers keep focus, sweep Shawano


Greg Bates, Times Herald Correspondent

Photos by Josh Thompson

Oconto Falls’ Kayla Virtues hits a ball past Shawano defenders during Thursday’s Bay Conference match in Shawano. The Panthers won 3-0.

Dawn Larsen was hoping her players’ focus was on volleyball Thursday night.

With it being homecoming week at Oconto Falls High School and all four of the seniors on the Panthers volleyball team in the homecoming court, the players’ minds might be elsewhere.

The Oconto Falls coach can breathe a little easier knowing her team took care of business, beating host Shawano Community High School, 25-16, 25-10, 25-21.

“Sometimes you just worry about matches like this because of the hype of homecoming,” Larsen said. “I just think they rose to the occasion.”

The players certainly did, especially in Game 3. Down two games to none, Shawano was scrappy in the finale. Oconto Falls led 16-15 when Shawano ran off five straight points to take a four-point lead, 20-16. The Panthers kept their composure and knotted it at 20-all, thanks to a pair of McKayla Johnson aces. A service error gave the Hawks a one-point cushion, but Oconto Falls scored the final five points of the game. Carly Lemke closed out the match by putting two shots away.

“These kids love a challenge, and the last game we scored nine points to their one, that’s phenomenal,” Larsen said. “The third game really helped us, I think, being behind and knowing they can come back.”

Oconto Falls, ranked No. 4 in Division 2 by the Wisconsin Volleyball Coaches Association, used its strong front line to handle Shawano. The Hawks had a difficult time trying to stop McKenna Larsen, 11 kills, 17 assists and 13 digs, and Carly Lemke, 15 kills.

“We had to make some adjustments, but we actually had three or four blocks on McKenna. I was very proud of them for that,” Shawano coach Jean Wolff said. “When they finally listened to the adjustment I wanted them to make on Carly, they were getting good touches so that my defenders could get under the ball.”

Oconto Falls (7-0 Bay Conference) got great productivity from its supporting players. Alyssa Nelson and Emily Kilmer each had three kills and Kayla Virtues added two. Liz Watzka had 11 assists.

Playing on Shawano’s senior night, Oconto Falls had a slow start in Game 1 and trailed 4-0.

“With the game going to 25, you can’t get uptight,” Larsen said. “It’s not like we were making horrible plays. I think McKenna hit one into the net, and that’s something the girls aren’t really used to. I wasn’t worried, I really wasn’t. I think our offensive attack speaks for itself.”

The Panthers’ offense kicked it into another gear, taking a 17-9 lead as Johnson tallied three of her match-high six aces. Oconto Falls closed out the opening game, 25-16.

The Panthers didn’t miss a beat in the second game, jumping out to an 11-1 advantage. After a pair of Larsen spikes, Oconto Falls was comfortably up 17-3 and went on to a 25-10 victory.

Oconto Falls took advantage all match of Shawano errors and made the home team pay.

“If you give us a free ball, and they gave us a lot of free balls, we’re going to attack,” Larsen said. “That’s the strength of our game. We played pretty good defense, too.”

The Panthers are clicking at the right time with playoffs right around the corner. Seeding for WIAA Division 2, Sectional 2 will take place Wednesday. Oconto Falls likely will be rewarded with the No. 1 seed and receive a first-round bye. The team’s opening playoff game would then be at home Oct. 24 vs. the winner of the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds.