ASHWAUBENON — The Wausau Newman Catholic volleyball team continued its unblemished run through the WIAA postseason with a sweep of Living Word Lutheran in a Division 4 state semifinal Friday morning.
The win didn’t come as easy as it might initially appear, however.
The Cardinals (39-1) trailed late in both of the first two sets but managed to rally and then close out the upstart Living Word program that was making its first state appearance.
Scores were 25-23, 25-21, 25-15.
“Living Word came in and played a great match against us. They never stopped fighting,” Newman Catholic coach Betty Lange said. “They really made us try and figure out what they were doing and get back on track with our game.”
Cardinals junior Mariah Whalen had 31 kills, setting a WIAA Division 4 state tournament record for a three-set match and had a .529 hitting percentage.
“Going up a hitter like her is obviously a challenge,” said Living Word senior middle hitter Sophie Hoelz, who finished with nine kills. “It’s fun to try and block her and try and get the digs up. I think we handled her pretty well in the back row and got some digs up against her and got some touches. Going up against a good hitter like her isn’t intimidating per se, but is more of just a good experience.”
Abbey Fox added 28 assists and Rylie Vaughn chipped in with five kills and nine assists.
Newman had a .350 hitting percentage in the match, with 14 errors in 80 attacks.
The Cardinals, who have not lost a set in their six-game playoff run so far, advance to Saturday’s state championship game against Southwestern. Newman Catholic is vying to win a third straight title and become the ninth program in the 43-year history of the tournament to accomplish the feat.
The championship game is set for a 9 a.m. start.
“This is what you practice for all season, so it’s really exciting to get to that final game,” Fox said.
Living Word scored four straight points to open the semifinal and had a 22-21 lead over Newman Catholic in the opening set before the Cardinals, who have lost eight sets all season, rallied for the win.
The Cardinals then scored the final six points of the second set to take a commanding lead in the match.
“I thought they were very scrappy (defensively). I thought they picked up everything and really made us work hard,” Lange said of Lutheran’s effort in the opening two sets. “They were placing their shots really well I thought and picking apart our defense. You have to give them a lot of credit for what they came and did.”
Whalen had kills on the final two points of the second set.
“I’m not sure if we have had someone like Whalen hit at us this year,” Living Word coach Dawn Walker said.
Hoelz and Keri Walker, a freshman middle hitter, was a key to Lutheran’s attack both offensively and defensively. Walker finished with nine kills, 10 assists and a block. Selah Batiansila had a team-high 15 assists.
Whalen said the Cardinals made a few offensive adjustments during the match.
“We just tried to move the ball around and get it away from (Lutheran’s) middles because they put up pretty big blocks,” Whalen said. “They’re a good team and we had to make adjustments throughout (the match).”
The Cardinals never trailed after the third point of the third set and went on a seven-point run late to build a 22-12 cushion.
“(Newman Catholic) is a great team and a scrappy team on defense. They made the plays they needed to make,” Walker said. “I’m just extremely proud of my girls and how hard they’ve worked here at the end of the season. I think they proved in the match that we deserve to be here.”