The Norfolk Panthers took third place in their own volleyball invitational Saturday and served notice that the program has embarked on a journey to respectability after two decades of plenty of struggles.
The Panthers won three of their four matches during the day to improve to 3-2 on the young season.
The eight-school invite featured two round-robin pools of four teams each. The Panthers went 2-1 in the pool play defeating Yankton 25-15, 25-15 and South Sioux City 25-15, 25-20 before losing to eventual tournament champion Hastings 25-16, 25-19.
Norfolk coach Katie Wright-Oswald said the key to all-day tournaments is finding the energy to keep going.
“We played three games in the morning and one game in the afternoon and we’re seeing that fight and effort from our players and that’s what we need to see,” Wright-Oswald said.
Norfolk’s second-place finish in the preliminary round earned it a match against the runner-up in the other round-robin bracket: Kearney.
Earlier in the day, the Bearcats had defeated Lincoln High and Columbus but had fallen to Bennington, all in straight sets.
Kearney certainly has had Norfolk’s number over the past four years. The last Norfolk victory over a Bearcat team came in Kearney on Oct. 1, 2013. In the four seasons since, Kearney had won nine straight matches against Norfolk squads and 19 of 21 sets.
It looked like more of the same early on. The taller Bearcats had raced out to an 8-3 lead before Gabby Ruth recorded a kill and two points later drilled a service ace to pull Norfolk within 8-6.
Kearney regrouped for an 11-7 lead before the Panthers went on a five-point run, highlighted by Jalen Hoffman’s kill and ace block, to take the lead, 12-11. The Panthers then took the first-set lead for good at 14-13 on Hoffman’s service ace.
With Norfolk leading 22-21, Gabby Ruth recorded a kill from the back row, followed two points later by sister Alex’s ace block which gave the Panthers the first set 25-21.
Wright-Oswald said she felt her team did a better job of passing on Saturday than on Thursday during a straight-sets road loss to Lincoln Southwest.
“In order for us to swing and have successful hits, we’ve got to have the set and in order to have the set, we have to have the pass, so I think our passing, our serve-receive was much higher,” she said.
The Panthers led for most of the second set as both Ruths, Ali Sovereign and Saydee Mittlestadt all recorded kills.
Meanwhile Norfolk worked hard to shake off a series of floor-denting spikes from Bearcat hitters Aspen Rusher and Claire Vanderbeek. Then a Lily Novacek kill gave Kearney the lead, 20-19.
Norfolk regained the lead 21-20 on a Hoffman kill but a pair of service aces from Adi Wood put Bearcats back on top 23-21.
Another Hoffman kill made it 23-22, but Ashton Mehlin’s ace block gave Kearney a set point at 24-22 and Wright-Oswald called timeout.
“I told the girls they just have to take a breath, I told them we have this, I know they might have the ball, but we have the momentum right now,” Wright-Oswald said.
After another Hoffman kill made the score 24-23, the Panthers dodged another set point when Anden Baumann found an open spot in the Kearney defense with a perfect two-handed setter attack.
Hoffman’s next serve was wide, forcing Norfolk to face a third set point. But Alex Ruth’s kill tied the score at 25, Sovereign’s stuff block gave Norfolk the lead before Gabby Ruth sealed the deal with a match-ending kill: Norfolk 27, Kearney 25.
Wright-Oswald praised her squad’s play at the net. “We were able to put together 25 kills in both sets combined and that comes from the effort of our players and they’re not afraid to take risks and try something new,” she said.
The Panthers will put their 3-2 record on the line Tuesday night when they host Grand Island.
Meanwhile, on the administrative side, Norfolk’s first volleyball invitational proved successful and, according to activities director Ben Ries, all of the visiting schools have committed to returning next year.