ORCS volleyball tops Rugby in regional semifinal, 3-2

Al Christianson/Special to the MDN Junior Annie Folden extends to get the ball past a pair of Rugby defenders during Our Redeemer's Region 6 semifinals match against the Panthers Tuesday at the Minot Municipal Auditorium.

Feed the ball to Annie Folden.

That’s the strategy the Our Redeemer’s Knights volleyball team employed Tuesday evening during the fifth set of their dramatic 3-2 win over Rugby in the Region 6 Tournament semifinals. After playing four hardly-fought sets decided by an average of 4.5 points, Our Redeemer’s found a way to emerge victorious in the fifth set, 15-8.

“Tonight was a well-played match from start to finish,” ORCS head coach Kara Nunziato said. “Everybody brought their best game. It inspired me to see my girls put everything together, and I was so happy to see us show that mental toughness and come out with a win.”

The Knights got to that fifth set thanks in part to Cheyenne Lang. The freshman not only kept her composure but thrived on the big stage by recording five late kills in the third set to give her team a 25-23 victory and a 2-1 set lead.

“(Lang) did a phenomenal job tonight,” Nunziato said. “She made herself available repeatedly to put away the ball. Overall, all of our younger players really stepped up when we needed them to.”

But Rugby didn’t quit. The Panthers leaned on a gutsy performance from senior Maria Blessum, who dealt with a left shoulder injury the whole match. Blessum didn’t let the injury get the best of her, as she recorded seven kills in the fourth set alone to give her team the 25-20 win and force a fifth set.

“Rugby definitely challenged us,” senior Tessa Olson said. “They put up such a good fight, and there were moments where we couldn’t take them for granted.”

With just 15 points standing in the way of a trip to the championship, Folden took control. The junior recorded the first two kills for Our Redeemer’s and added a block for good measure en route to a 6-1 start.

But Folden wasn’t finished. The 6-foot middle hitter showed off her range as well, driving home an ace that gave the Knights an 11-6 lead and ignited Our Redeemer’s bench. The Knights rode that momentum to a 15-8 win, securing their spot in the championship.

“We just managed to pull it out,” Folden said. “We kept ourselves up, stayed calm and handled the moment. We look forward to moments like that.”

Lang finished with a team-high 17 kills, while Folden chipped in 12. Tessa Olson had a strong outing, totaling 44 digs. On the opposite side, Rugby’s Maria Blessum totaled 21 kills and 10 digs. Despite falling heartbreakingly short of the win, Panthers head coach Jessica Fritz vocalized her pride in her team’s gutsy performance.

“We fought off a lot of injuries tonight,” Fritz said. “Everybody stepped up when we needed them to. This team is one of the toughest teams, and I’m so proud. It just didn’t go our way.”

With the win, Our Redeemer’s has booked a date with Lewis & Clark-Berthold in Thursday’s championship match. The Bombers enter the showdown as the hottest team in the region after earning a shocking 3-2 win over Des Lacs-Burlington on Tuesday. It’ll be a dramatic finish to a Region 6 Tournament filled with exciting battles, and with a trip to state on the line, the Knights hope to emerge victorious.

ORCS is looking to reach the state tournament for a fifth consecutive season.

“It’s so unreal, it’s amazing,” Olson said. “I just can’t wait to play Thursday. All of us are excited for the opportunity.”

Justin Martinez covers Minot High School and Class B high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @JTheSportsDude.