KIMBERLY — Momentum can be incredibly difficult to regain in volleyball and Kaukauna had lost it.
The highly skilled Ghosts needed a rally.
They put together a remarkable one — just when the most important match of their lives seemed in danger of slipping away.
Kaukauna calmly erased a five-point deficit late in the fourth set to win a WIAA sectional boys’ volleyball championship with a 3-1 win over archrival Appleton North on Thursday at Kimberly High School.
The Ghosts will open state tournament play next Friday at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Pairings and times will be announced later.
It will be the Ghosts’ first trip to the WIAA state tournament since 2013 and they earned it by playing with poise, power and precision against a quality Appleton North team. Kaukauna is ranked No. 1 in the Wisconsin Boys Volleyball Coaches Association state poll, while the Lightning is rated third. The Ghosts won the Fox Valley Association championship with a 16-0 record, while North was second at 14-2.
The two teams seem to duel it out each year late in the tournament and the Ghosts were able to deliver payback for last year’s 3-0 sectional final loss to North.
“Another classic Kaukauna, Appleton North battle,” said Ghosts coach Tom Belling. “We just beat one of the best teams in the state. It’s a shame, honestly, that we’re not both going to state. To beat that team, I feel real good about how we’re playing. I’m excited to get down there and see what we can do.”
Dalton Erdman, Kaukauna’s outstanding senior hitter, agreed that last year’s sectional loss to the Lightning pushed the Ghosts a little harder.
“It’s been in the back of my mind all season,” said Erdman. “So yeah, there’s a little bit of revenge. We were the better team tonight. We worked hard all season just to get back to this match. To come out with a win, there is no greater feeling.”
Kaukauna, led by the powerful hitting of Erdman (17 kills), Zach Schmidt (12 kills) and Sam Neuber (11 kills), started fast. The Ghosts won the first two sets by scores of 25-20 and 25-18, and positioned themselves for a sweep.
But it never happened. The Lightning stormed back to win the third set, 25-22, and stayed hot in the fourth set, building a 24-19 lead and setting the stage for a winner-takes-all fifth set.
That’s when the Ghosts went to work, firing off seven unanswered points to end the Lightning’s season and punch their ticket to Milwaukee.
“Defense and blocking, that’s what it was about,” said Erdman. “We were a beast at the net. They had some tips and rolls, and when they did tip it, we were there to pick it up. And then we ran our offense right back at them.”
Belling loved his team’s poise, but wasn’t surprised to see it.
“We practice late-game stuff being down,” said Belling. “We know we still have to serve aggressively and stick with our plan. And we stuck with our plan.”
The Lightning received strong net play and exceptional hitting from Mitch Widule (16 kills), Galen Rakestraw (13 kills), Ethan Strick (12 kills, 5 blocks) and Zach Goggans (8 kills). North was also able to dig out several scorching Kaukauna shots that seemed almost impossible to return. Ryan Driessen had 22 digs for the Lightning, while Widule had eight.
“We fought hard and gave it our best effort and I’m proud of the kids for that,” said North coach Mike Maass. “But it wasn’t good enough. We just didn’t get it done. We needed just one more swing in that fourth game to force a fifth game, and momentum would have been on our side for that. But they did a good job of stringing together a run at the end.”
KAUKAUNA 3, APPLETON NORTH 1
Kaukauna beat Appleton North 25-20, 25-18, 22-25, 26-24. Kaukauna leaders: Dalton Erdman 17 kills; Zach Schmidt 12 kills; Sam Neueber 11 kills; Ben Brochtrup 4 kills; Bailey McDaniel 4 kills; Cooper Diedrich 45 assists. Appleton North leaders: Mitch Nussbaum 47 assists, 7 digs; Ryan Driessen 22 digs; Mitch Widule 16 kills, 8 digs; Galen Rakestraw 13 kills; Zach Goggans 8 kills; Ethan Strick 12 kills, 5 blocks; Noah Kuester 6 digs; Collin Brinkhoff 4 kills.
Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or email@example.com; on Twitter @twfroberg