Nick Sabato/Lakeland Times

Mercer sophomore Aubrey Schoeneman tips the ball over the reach of Shell Lake’s Natalie Jury (12) during the first set of a WIAA Division 4 Sectional Semifinal on Thursday, Oct. 26, at the Northwood School.
Nick Sabato/Lakeland Times

Mercer sophomore Aubrey Schoeneman tips the ball over the reach of Shell Lake’s Natalie Jury (12) during the first set of a WIAA Division 4 Sectional Semifinal on Thursday, Oct. 26, at the Northwood School.
MINONG - Momentum is an underrated aspect in sports. It can't turn fortunes around in a heartbeat, it can turn a close game into a blowout in a few plays and vice versa.

On Thursday night at the Northwood School, Mercer Public School and Shell Lake saw that firsthand in the WIAA Division 4 Sectional Semifinals.

A quick swing in momentum took Mercer from the brink of winning the first set to being in an 0-2 hole, to coming all the way back to being on the verge of winning the entire match.

In the end, Shell Lake was able to withstand the surge by the top-seeded Lady Tigers in a five-set instant classic, 26-24, 25-12, 21-25, 22-25, 19-17.

"That second set was by far the worst we've played all season," Mercer head coach Robyn Schoeneman said. "I thought, 'Well, we have to show some character or we're going to call it a night.' They really just seemed to come alive and that was great. It was great to see their character and battle back. It might be a little bit of our youth showing. When the game was on the line and some of our kids were going back to serve and perhaps their nerves got the best of them."

Mercer had Shell Lake on the ropes in a back-and-forth first set. Trailing 18-17, the Lady Tigers took a 24-19 lead and appeared to be on the verge of taking an early lead in the match, but the momentum quickly changed.

Shell Lake scored the final seven points of the set to take the win, stunning Mercer and the side effects carried over into the next set.

The Lady Tigers were clearly still stunned by the events that transpired at the end of the first set and it resulted in a thumping, as the Lakers dominated and looked to walk away with an easy three-set win.

"I feel like the momentum had shifted at the end of that first set and carried into the second set," Schoeneman said. "I think they thought, 'Oh my god, we played so bad. Our season's going to be over.' They had already been mentally defeated. The best thing that happened to the second set was that it was over."

Aside from a turn in momentum, Mercer was struggling to stop Shell Lake's star outside hitter, Anna Mikula.

Mikula was nearly unstoppable throughout the match, totaling 33 kills, while also rarely misplaying a ball when she was in the back row.

In the first two sets, the Lakers always seemed to find a way to set up Mikula for a big hit.

"Since the end of conference play, she has found a whole new level," Shell Lake head coach Amy Skattebo said. "My assistant coach really worked to turn her away from just being a one-hit wonder, because she would hit the ball always in the same spot. She learned how to mix it up, how to hit different shots, how to hit out of the back row, so she's definitely our go-to."

Mercer not only struggled with Mikula, but to get around a big front line that produced 11 blocks in the game.

Down 13-8 in the third set, the Lady Tigers came alive. They finally found a way around the block, and in turn, a way to keep the ball away from Mikula.

Mercer eventually won the third set to gain some momentum and then took the fourth set 25-22 after the game was tied at 22-all, stealing all of the momentum heading into the fifth set.

"By the third set we found out who the ball needed to go to," Schoeneman said. "When we started finding the middle of the court - which was wide open - that was when we started getting our kills. Bailey Thompson found the back corner several times and that was exactly what we needed to have happen. All of a sudden this light bulb went on and all of them started doing it."

Mercer entered the fifth and final set with all of the momentum and it played that way.

The Lady Tigers took firm control, holding a five-point lead, but couldn't hold onto it as Shell Lake battled back to tie the set at 13-apiece.

Mercer stayed the course, however, and on four different occasions had the Lakers in a match-point situation. The Lady Tigers could never get that final point, though, as Shell Lake tied the game all four times before finally taking the lead and the win.

"We just couldn't finish," Schoeneman said. "We were playing scared and we didn't play to win. That was the difference."

The loss reduced some of the Mercer players to tears, as happens frequently in season-ending defeat, but there is a silver lining to the situation.

The Lady Tigers don't have a senior on the roster, so barring any unforseen circumstances, they will return the entire team next fall to make another run and a tight loss against a good opponent will have likely made them better.

"They'll have been here before," Schoeneman said. "When we played here last year we didn't have anybody that had much experience. We came in here very green. When you start two freshmen, this is a big stage for them. It's a huge stage. It's only going to make us a better team in the end."

Conversely, Shell Lake only had three seniors on its roster, so a rematch next season could be in the cards.

When asked about the possibility of such a scenario, Schoeneman said, "I wouldn't say no."

Nick Sabato may be reached at nick@lakelandtimes.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.