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Tigers top Panthers in battle of top teams

Kora Just made a diving dig during Park Rapids' match against Pine River-Backus Tuesday night. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

It was expected to be a battle when two of the top volleyball teams in the state met Tuesday night at the Area High School gym.

Pine River-Backus entered as the defending Section 5A champions and rated No. 7 in the state Class A poll while Park Rapids entered as the defending Section 8AA runner-up and ranked No. 11 in the state Class AA poll.

Both teams lived up to their rankings, but the difference was clutch play by Bailey Wynn and Gabby Rainwater down the stretch that led Pine River-Backus to a hard-fought 25-19, 14-25, 25-13, 33-31 victory.

"Pine River played a very good match. They outplayed us," said Park Rapids head coach Stephanie Hanson. "They came in with an edge having been to state and coming off a very successful season. They did a good job mixing things up and keeping us off balance. We had a tough time staying in system. We struggled on defense to adjust and execute. We had our chances, but couldn't finish."

Rilee Michaelson's three kills gave Park Rapids a 5-3 lead in Set 1 before a pair of ace serves by Wynn gave PR-B a 7-5 edge. Kills by Kayleah Breitweser, Michaelson and Kaisa Coborn tied the set at 11-11 before another kill by Michaelson gave the Panthers a 14-13 advantage. An ace serve and kill by Olivia Adams, two kills by Rainwater and kills by Wynn and Jaime Johnson sparked a 12-5 run that gave the Tigers the opening set. Kamree Carlson and Coborn had kills for Park Rapids during that stretch.

Set 2 was tied at 12-12 before the Panthers took control to even the match. A kill and ace serve by Kendra Scholz and a kill by Coborn gave Park Rapids a 10-6 edge before the Tigers rallied to tie the set. After a kill by Michaelson provided a 13-12 lead, Carlson served two aces and nine straight points to put the Panthers in control. Michaelson contributed a kill and assisted on two blocks to help give Park Rapids a 22-12 advantage. Kills by Michaelson and Coborn closed out the set.

Two blocks and a kill by Johnson, two kills by Rainwater, and ace serves by Ellie Smith and Rylie Hirschey sparked the Tigers to an 18-9 lead in Set 3. Michaelson had three kills while Carlson and Breitweser had kills for Park Rapids in the early going. Another kill by Michaelson, an ace serve by Scholz and a kill by Coborn pulled the Panthers to within 19-13 before Adkins served out the set with the aid of a kill by Rainwater and a block by Anna Felthous and Wynn.

Both teams battled in a thrilling Set 4 before Pine River-Backus finally secured the win. The Tigers led in the early going before Park Rapids tied the set at 15-15. This set would feature 14 ties the rest of the way as the Tigers fought off nine set points by Park Rapids. Wynn had six kills and Rainwater had a pair of kills as PR-B led 15-12. Carlson and Michaelson had a pair of kills while Coborn and Scholz had kills for the Panthers at the start. Kills by Carlson and Coborn tied the set at 15-15. Two kills by Breitweser and kills by Carlson and Coborn helped the Panthers keep the set tied at 20-20 before a kill by Wynn gave PR-B a 21-20 edge. Two ace serves by Michaelson put the Panthers on the brink of forcing a deciding set with a 24-21 lead before a tip by Hirschey and a kill by Rainwater tied it at 24-24. Two kills by Coborn and a kill by Michaelson helped give the Panthers leads at 25-24, 26-25, 27-26, 28-27, 29-28 and 30-29, but each time PR-B countered to extend the set. Three kills by Wynn and two kills by Rainwater during that span led the Tigers as the set was tied at 30-30. After a kill by Coborn gave the Panthers a 31-30 advantage, a kill by Rainwater, a Park Rapids error and another kill by Rainwater closed out the match.

Wynn pounded down 19 kills and had 18 digs while Rainwater chipped in 18 kills and Johnson finished with 11 kills for PR-B. Hirschey set up 53 kills while Emma Barchus had 19 digs as PR-B improved to 8-1.

"This match kind of opened my eyes. As frustrating as it was to lose, this might be good for us right now to see where we are at and what we need to fix to get better," said Hanson, whose team fell to 3-1 on the season. "The girls fought hard to the end, but they were just a little better than we were. We have the ability, we just need to be more confident and be mentally stronger. We'll see what we learned and how we bounce back from this loss."