Key dig, Koenen finish the job

The Demons finished 35-10 and enjoy their third state title since 2011. Photo by Mike Ramczyk

By Mike Ramczyk

sports@southernlakesnewspapers.com

GREEN BAY – The gold ball is back in the halls of Burlington High School.

“It’s what you dream of since you’re 8 in Burlington,” said junior Maddie Berezowitz.

After a roller-coaster ride of a WIAA Division 1 state volleyball match that began with the Demons dominating and River Falls bouncing back to tie it, a knee-shaking fifth set, ripe with back-and-forth play and deafening intensity, yielded Burlington’s third state title in seven years.

After previously unbeaten River Falls (43-1) lost the first two games, only their fourth and fifth game losses of the entire season, Burlington overcame two straight losses and grinded out the final set to win, 25-20, 25-15, 22-25, 17-25, 15-13, in an epic finale that featured extended points and close calls.

It was Berezowitz that came up large with things tied at 13-13 in the decisive game. Powerful hitter Marissa Stockman, an Illinois State recruit, leaped to pound home a potential kill from the middle, but Berezowitz was right there for an emphatic dig, which saw the ball float back over the net and lead to a Falls error.

Then, with the serve, Burlington’s defense played it perfectly before Kaley Blake set up the Demons’ bread and butter, Abby Koenen on the outside left, who in rhythm banged home the winner. Burlington overcame a 13-11 deficit with a 4-0 run to win it.

Burlington struggled all match to stop Illinois State recruit Marissa Stockman in the middle, but on the final play sophomores Kaley Blake and Emily Alan played her perfectly, as their block ricocheted all the way back near the service line and forced a diving Falls save.

The disruption caused River Falls to give a free ball back to the Demons, and a crisp pass left Blake with no choice but to make the Wildcats pay by finding the team’s best hitter.

The Demon bench players rushed the floor, forming a monkey pile with their rambunctious teammates on the Resch Center court as the Burlington coaches shared embraces, highlighted by longtime coach Dan Lynch’s simultaneous jump and fist pump to the large contingent of Demon fans.

Koenen, a UW-Milwaukee recruit who finished with a match-high 26 kills, posted an impressive .367 hitting percentage thanks in large part to clean looks and accurate setting.

“It means a lot to me to finish this year with a gold ball, especially with the two girls next to me,” Koenen said in the post-game press conference referring to fellow seniors Brooklyn Vandehei and Tamlyn Kretschmer.

“Once we persevered through some blocking and passing struggles, we all came together and picked each other up. We saw when we were down, acknowledged it, and didn’t let it happen.”

“As soon as we started setting up and getting block touches on their middles, and especially with Maddie’s amazing dig, I feel like we got more momentum,” Vandehei said.

Alan said it was the team’s goal to win state. She agreed with Vandehei, noting once the Demons knew how to block Stockman (19 kills) and the Falls’ dangerous middle threat, the team’s confidence soared.

“Oh my God, it’s just ‘Wow,” I don’t have words,” Alan said. “I didn’t think it was happening, I thought it was a dream. I have no clue what’s happening right now.”

Freshman Sam Naber, who led the defense with 16 digs, was just as overwhelmed with emotion as Alan.

“You can’t really describe this feeling,” Naber said. “Pretty amazing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and it takes everyone. It takes years and years and years of practice. It’s amazing.”

“We hang out a lot, sleepovers, team breakfast, dinners, just to get together with all our different ages. To combine it all was cool, I made some amazing friends who are seniors and I’ll miss them. That friendship and that bond helped, and we weren’t quite able to finish at the beginning of the season. At practices, we worked on that. It took everyone’s positivity to get there.”

 

Players rush the court after Saturday’s state title game. The Demons piled up on each other. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Burlington dominates early

With hitting percentages of .355 and .333 in the first two games, the Demons floored the Wildcats, who hit for a significantly lower percentage.

Burlington never trailed in game one, and offensive versatility spearheaded by Brooklyn Vandehei, middle Camryn Lukenbill, Koenen and Alan set the tone. In the second game, Berezowitz enjoyed a four-point service run, and the Demons led by as many as 10 at 19-9.

The Wildcats clawed back, but kills from Coley Haggard and Blake finished off Falls.

“We gave the fans a thriller,” said Burlington co-coach Teri Leach. “We came out in control, and I give River Falls a ton of credit for making some big-time adjustments and neutralizing our offense.”

“It came down to a battle of the fifth set, and it could’ve gone either way, and I give us credit for gutting out a couple of big points.”

River Falls picked up the intensity and finally found an offensive rhythm in set three, where they hit .364. With Stockman forming an intimidating presence in the middle, Halle Olson and Emily Banitt added solid hitting from the outside, while the Wildcats also picked up their serving.

Banitt’s six kills led the way in game three, as it seemed the Demons showed a bit of fatigue overall.

By the fourth game, the Wildcats continued their pressure on the Demon defense, taking a 17-10 lead. Burlington could only get to within five points the rest of the set.

 

Pandemonium sets in

During the fifth set, Leach and the players were on edge.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with any kind of lead in that fifth set,” Leach said with a relieved laugh. “As soon as we knew the ball was going out to Abby on that last point, I had a little bit of comfort, but it was never there because we had to battle.”

The Resch Center was rocking in set five, hanging on every second as River Falls opened with a 4-1 lead behind Banitt and Olson.

But the Demons fought back, capitalizing on a few Falls error and points from Vandehei and Alan to tie it at 6-6.

The pressure and nerves were evident as both teams traded miscues before Banitt’s two kills pushed the Falls lead back to 13-11.

A few controversial line calls caused displeasure from each sideline before Falls suffered a botched serve and a hitting error to make it 13-13.

Burlington was able to rally in the fifth set by keeping Falls out of system with solid serving. The Demons totaled 11 aces on the night.

Also, setter Kaley Blake was on point, with 51 assists. Blake (10 digs), Koenen (10) and Vandehei (9) added defensive pressure from the back row.

Burlington’s block was effective in their wins, as the Demons totaled six team blocks.

“Ball control was working for us early, and we knew we wanted to come out aggressive so they didn’t get their big girls the ball. We knew Stockman was going to get her fair share of kills, and we were not going to get rattled. We wanted to stop the balls we should’ve stopped.”

“In the third and fourth sets, they regained momentum with ball control. I don’t know if it’s because we were serving different or not, but they did a lot better.”

The girls took part in their traditional jump routine after the monumental victory. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

Demons own the decade

After capturing state titles with three future Division 1 college volleyball players in 2011 and 2012, Burlington has returned to Green Bay four of the past five years, including four straight.

This season was particularly challenging, with only two seniors in the regular rotation and three overall, coupled with seven underclassmen (freshmen and sophomores), so chemistry took some time.

Early hiccups in conference to Westosha Central and Waterford led to a rare second-place finish in the Southern Lakes Conference, and the Demons’ final record of 35-10 reflected ups and downs.

But after a third-place finish at the West Bend Sprawl seemed to turn things around, Burlington peaked at the right time, firing off 14 straight victories to end the season including a conference tournament title.

What was special about this young group of overachievers?

“We could go all the way back to the summer and see the tone we set with leadership and accountability,” Leach said. “They’ve been a committed and very focused group from the get-go. Our daily practices, our sub lineup pushed and pushed our starting lineup, and made practices so competitive. There were times these girls were so frustrated because they couldn’t be as productive as they wanted to be playing against their own bench. Our bench has a lot to do with this win.”

For Koenen, Vandehei and Kretschmer, they join a long line of Burlington volleyball success. With humble beginnings in the Burlington Elite club, they’ve known and played with each other for nearly a decade.

“I’m beyond thankful for the coaches and everyone who’s helped along the way,” Koenen said. “Starting from Burlington Elite and now being a state champ is a big win for me.”

Koenen said the road to success starts early in the offseason, with open gyms.

“We lift almost every day of the season, and we pushed each other in open gyms,” Koenen said. “Even the freshmen were surprisingly vocal, which was a new thing for us.”

 

A culture of development

Leach put things into perspective when asked how important state championships actually are. While the goal is always to win it all, it starts with small steps and work ethic. Improvement is the ultimate key to continued success.

“The wins and the titles come when you put the pieces together in the right way,” Leach said. “We’ve done a great job of being very development-focused, and our kids do a great job of figuring out, ‘OK, what am I not good at? Where can I improve,’ and they work. They don’t care about what happened last year, this year or the day before. We had plenty of losses this year, we just always kept moving forward and stayed focus. Hats off to them, because success comes when you put things in the right order.”

Koenen said the Demons always peak at the right time, as the end goal is success at state, not necessarily early in the season.

The three seniors embraced their leadership roles this season, but there was plenty of adversity.

“The biggest thing was taking a leadership role and picking up my serve-receive, taking a new position than last year where I was just a three-rotation player,” Koenen said.

Vandehei became more of a vocal leader.

“I had to be more vocal because I had some struggles with talking to everyone,” she said. “I feel pretty confident about how I did.”

Students first, Kretschmer said figuring out where to attend college was her biggest obstacle of the season, and her teammates helped guide her decision.

On the court, a strong nucleus of Haggard, Berezowitz, Naber, Blake, Alan and Lukenbill among others means state tournament trips show no sign of stopping.

“Our chemistry is so good, and we’re just such a versatile team,” Alan said. “Wherever Teri puts us, we can play there and execute right away. We love each other on and off the court, and it’s a great team.”

 

 

 

 

 

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