By Paul Lecker For Zaleski Sports
AUBURNDALE – Auburndale’s defense did all it could, turning Stratford back time and again, but the Tigers were able to find a way in the end to pull out a big Marawood Conference South Division volleyball victory.
Stratford stymied a match point in the fifth and deciding set, and won the final four points to finish off a 3-2 victory over Auburndale on Tuesday night at Auburndale High School.
Stratford won 25-18, 26-28, 25-21, 23-25, 16-14, to improve to 4-0 in the Marawood South and clinch no worse than a tie for the conference championship. Auburndale is now 2-2. Stratford hosts Wisconsin Rapids Assumption in its final conference match on Oct. 8.
“We knew coming into this that it was going to be a really tough match,” Stratford coach Brooke Kafka said. “We lost to them earlier in a three-game tournament match here. We were prepared for coming into a tough game. Our mental toughness was much stronger now, compared to earlier in the season. It was great to see the girls not give up.”
Stratford pulled away in the first game, using a 5-1 scoring run to take a 21-15 lead.
A kill by Kamryn Schueller and two Auburndale errors gave Stratford the 25-18 win.
Auburndale took command in the second set with a 9-0 run to take a 20-11 lead. Isabella Hilber had two kills in the run.
Stratford fought back with a 7-0 run of its own to close within a point at 21-20, and eventually took a 25-24 lead before Auburndale regrouped and finished off a 28-26 victory.
The back-and-forth match continued in the third game. Auburndale led 14-11 following three kills from Kaitlyn Kundinger, but the Tigers ripped off nine points in a row, three coming on aces from Mikayla Guldan, and two on kills by Breanna Ackley.
Stratford closed out the 25-21 win on a kill by Guldan.
“We were definitely expecting a battle back and forth, and tonight could have gone either way,” Auburndale coach Peggy Empey said. “They (Stratford) were such fantastic servers, it was really throwing us off to get out offense going.”
The lead changed hands seven times in the fourth set before Auburndale scored the final three points, all on kills from Natalie Aue, to win 25-23 and send the match to the fifth game.
Auburndale scored the first four points before Stratford fought back and eventually tied the game at 9-9.
A tip kill by Aue and a Stratford error gave Auburndale a 14-12 lead. Standing one point away from defeat, Stratford got a block kill from Ackley and two kills by Lauryn Nagel to take the lead. The Tigers won the final point to complete the victory.
“From the beginning it has been a work in progress with a whole new group of girls,” Kafka said. “It’s been nice to see how the girls have been fitting into their places, and even coming off the bench, the girls have been doing a nice job. I think a lot of people want to compare us to what we were last year, but we aren’t the same team. Having the successful that we are so far is a great feeling for me, and I’m sure for the girls as well.”
Auburndale finished with 101 digs as a team, 33 from Madison Krings and 18 more from Katie Helminiak. Helminiak and Aue each had 14 kills, and Georgi Schmutzer had 32 assists for the Apaches.
“We’ve been going in that direction,” Empey said of the Auburndale defense. “What was most exciting for me was how the girls kind of let loose and went for every ball. There’s always moments where you feel that hesitation, and that was few and far between tonight. I’m really proud of how they played with heart.”
Guldan had 12 kills and Nagel nine for the Tigers.
Stratford and Auburndale will both play in a Marawood Conference North-South Crossover tournament on Saturday at Abbotsford.
Paul Lecker is publisher of MarshfieldAreaSports.com, a contributor to Zaleski Sports.