Back-to-back conference champs

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Panthers win Bay volleyball tournament to secure title

Greg Bates Times Herald correspondent

It’s been nearly 25 months since the Oconto Falls volleyball team has lost a Bay Conference match.

The Panthers entered Saturday’s tournament in Shawano winning their last 27 league games. This year’s seniors, who were sophomores the last time Oconto Falls fell to a Bay team, weren’t going to let the streak be snapped.

Oconto Falls went 4-0 on the day, sweeping each opponent in two games and captured its second straight conference title.

“It’s definitely what we wanted this year,” Panthers senior middle hitter Carly Lemke said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the team. It just feels wonderful.”

The back-to-back undefeated championships is quite a feat for Oconto Falls.

“I was told last year that we were the first team to ever be undefeated in the Bay and this is two years in a row,” Panthers coach Dawn Larsen said. “We’re going to reminisce, we’re going to celebrate, relish in this moment for a couple days and come back Monday and we’re going to really get down to business as far as regionals.”

The Panthers players knew coming into the day that they controlled their own destiny. If they won out, the title was there.

“We were definitely really focused today. Coming here, we just knew that we had to come out ready to play because there are really good teams here,” Lemke said.

Oconto Falls won its first three matches handily and already had the conference title wrapped up before playing its final opponent of the day, second-place Hortonville, in a de facto championship game for the tournament.

The Panthers didn’t let up on the Polar Bears. McKenna Larsen served Oconto Falls to an 8-0 lead in Game 1. McKayla Johnson got an ace to put her team up 16-5 and the Panthers didn’t look back in a 25-9 victory.

“We really came out ready to play and you could definitely see it right away,” Lemke said. “We played our best.”

In the second game, Oconto Falls hung on to a 16-14 lead before scoring nine of the final 12 points for a 25-17 triumph.

“Wow, we really took it to them,” coach Larsen said. “The first game, out of the nine points they scored they earned six. I think we missed three serves. We blocked really well and dug really well. That’s almost a picture-perfect volleyball match. There were very few mistakes and we came out and did everything we needed to do.”

Earlier in the day in pool play, Oconto Falls downed Seymour 25-13, 25-20, and took care of Shawano 25-14, 25-12, to advance to the gold bracket.

In the first match of the gold round, the Panthers beat Luxemburg-Casco 25-21, 25-22.

Coach Larsen was elated following the day by the effort from all her players. A well-balanced attack was critical in capturing another conference crown.

“I told (the girls) last week, ‘Whatever you can bring to the team, know what your role is and know what you need to do to help this team win a conference title,’” Larsen said. “And, boy, they sure did it today.”

McKenna Larsen had a huge all-around day with 54 kills, 51 assists, 33 digs and 10 aces. Lemke was solid with 46 kills and nine blocks. Liz Watzka added 46 assists and McKayla Johnson came through with 33 digs.

Oconto Falls now turns its attention to the postseason. It’s a brand new season and Lemke said her and her teammates will be prepared.

“Regular season really doesn’t matter in playoffs, it doesn’t matter how many games we won,” Lemke said. “You lose one and you’re out. Last year we got out a little sooner than we wanted to, so this year we’re definitely going in and we want to go farther.”

The Panthers, the top seed in a Division 2 regional, earned a first-round bye before playing the winner of No. 8-seeded Seymour versus No. 9-seeded Shawano. Oconto Falls will host the second-round game at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“Going into regionals we just want to keep going, keep getting better, keep pushing ourselves,” Lemke said. “We have some goals set, but right now we’re just living in this moment.”