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Net defense powers MCM past Tigers

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McCook Central/Montrose's Aleah Ries (9) puts down a kill against Groton Area's Indigo Rogers on Thursday at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. (Ryan Deal / Republic)

RAPID CITY -- McCook Central/Montrose was amped after its first-set win, but it needed to refocus.

The Fighting Cougars did just that in the final two sets on Thursday at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, taking down Groton Area in four sets in the first round of the Class A state tournament. Set scores were 25-17, 19-25, 25-16 and 25-21.

“I think we were expecting to play well, and at first, we did,” said MCM senior Abigail Van Ruler, who put down the match-winning kill. “Then we kind of went down a little bit, but once we got in a groove things started clicking.”

MCM (25-3) plays No. 2 Dakota Valley at 7:15 p.m. Central on Friday. Groton Area (26-8) plays Madison at 3:45 p.m. Central in the consolation bracket.

A tightly-contested first set turned into a comfortable win for MCM, which ended on a 15-8 run. But the Fighting Cougars took their foot off the pedal, while Groton Area’s kills took them out of their system to make it harder to get powerful strikes on the ball.

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“I think we were so excited from the first set that we kind of laid off a little bit,” said Van Ruler, who had 13 kills, seven blocks and three digs. “But we shouldn’t have done that. We were confident that we were going to win, but I think that hindered our ability to really keep pushing ourselves.”

Led by the 6-foot-2 Van Ruler, MCM’s net defense picked up. It changed its footwork on defense and recorded 13 total blocks, resulting in nine straight points to take a 9-3 advantage in the third set. The Fighting Cougars didn’t trail for the remainder of the match.

“We did a much better job tonight blocking at the net,” MCM coach Tami Bies said. “(Van Ruler) was a big force at the net, getting up there. She kind of intimidates people. It was nice she was able to get her hands on some of those balls.”

Aleah Ries’ team-best 16 kills helped the Fighting Cougars take a 5-0 lead in the fourth set, which grew to as much as an eight-point advantage.

Jacy Pulse added 13 kills for MCM. Cassy Knudsen finished with 15 digs and Emily Bies dished out 40 assists to go with 11 digs. Ries also added 11 digs and Riley Morrison finished with 17 digs.

“We just decided we better play some ball,” Bies said. “We struggled with our serve-receive, so that was tough for us. We were able to play a little more aggressive at the net.”

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