St. Croix Central and Ellsworth are among the teams with high aspirations in the Middle Border Conference title chase this fall.

So it wasn’t surprising that Thursday’s match in Ellsworth was a high-velocity battle to the final point. Central saved its best play for the final set to earn the five-set victory, improving its MBC record to 2-0.

Central faces two more important MBC matches this week, both at home. The Panthers will host New Richmond on Tuesday and Baldwin-Woodville on Thursday.

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Central’s match at Ellsworth was expected to be a battle of big hitting teams and the match lived up to the billing. Ellsworth won the opening set 25-18, but Central came back with a 25-15 win. Ellsworth again won the third set 25-18, but Central again responded, this time winning 25-17. The final set was a battle, tied at 11-11. Central took advantage of a couple Ellsworth mishits, with Delaynee Bohatta delivering the final point in a 15-12 Central victory.

One of the assets that worked in Central’s favor was the depth in the hitting attack. The Panthers had four girls with eight or more kills. Sophomore Katie Gostovich was the standout on Thursday with 13 kills, while Bohatta, Kathryn Larson and Olivia Cleary each had eight kills.

“We’re pretty well balanced, we can go in a lot of directions,” Central coach Mindy Widiker said of the Panthers’ hitting. There is one junior (Cleary) and three sophomores in that group of hitters. Widiker said they are still learning. She said Thursday’s match showed they still can get better at recognizing the opponent’s blocking to not hit into blocks.

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Blocking was a factor that Central put to good use too. The Panthers registered 20 blocks in the match, with Cleary getting eight of them.

The Panthers had excellent setting with Morgan Siler and Kaitlyn Holmgren teaming for 39 assists. Widiker said Siler has stepped up her game, playing with more confidence.

Defense remains a big part of Central’s weaponry. The Panthers had 72 digs in the match, led by 19 from Larson and 12 from Holmgren.

Widiker said the team has numerous girls playing through injuries, but there is little time to let those injuries heal.

Widiker said her team knew what to expect when they headed to Ellsworth.

“Every time we play Ellsworth, it’s going to go five sets and come down to the bitter end,” Widiker said.