Nick Sabato/Lakeland Times

Mercer’s Zoe Botes (7) and the Mercer bench celebrate after beating Drummond for the school’s second consecutive WIAA Division 4 Regional championship on Saturday, Oct. 21, at Mercer Public School.
Nick Sabato/Lakeland Times

Mercer’s Zoe Botes (7) and the Mercer bench celebrate after beating Drummond for the school’s second consecutive WIAA Division 4 Regional championship on Saturday, Oct. 21, at Mercer Public School.
MERCER - It has been a season of surprises on the volleyball court at Mercer Public School. One year after winning the school's first regional championship since 2001, the Lady Tigers expected to have some growing pains.

Mercer lost three crucial starters from last year's team and the 2017 team would not have a single senior on the roster.

The rebuild was pretty fast. All the Lady Tigers have done this season is win their first Indianhead Conference championship in 16 years and find themselves back in the WIAA Division 4 Regional finals once again on Saturday against Drummond.

The home crowd was deafening, despite having half the bleachers full, and Mercer had little trouble dispatching Drummond in three sets, 25-15, 25-10, 25-13 for its second consecutive regional title.

"I told my captain Bailey Thompson at the beginning of the season that she would have to be patient with this group because they're young," Mercer head coach Robyn Schoeneman said. "We have a lot of young kids. We have two freshmen, four sophomores, a junior and no seniors in our main rotation. Coming off a successful season, I knew it would be different team and they have proven me wrong over and over and over. Winning the conference championship in 16 years and back-to-back regional championships is pretty awesome."

While the success is still the same as last year, Mercer does indeed have a different type of team this season.

The Lady Tigers not only had a plethora of veterans last season, but they had three girls who were six-feet tall, one of them being WIAA shot put and discus champion Sydney Thompson.

Only one of those girls returned - sophomore Aubrey Schoeneman - but Mercer is as good as it gets defensively. Not many balls touch the floor for Mercer and Drummond found that out in a match which barely lasted an hour.

"I knew that the look of the team would be different and that we would be more defensively-oriented because we don't have the big hitters that we did last year," coach Schoeneman said. "So we knew that our defense had to step up and a lot of our focus over the course of the season has been defensively-oriented. Getting the balls and just digging, digging, digging. Getting the balls to our hitters. They're just starting to develop into hitters so it definitely has a different look than it did in the past."

Aubrey Schoeneman had seven kills and six aces, while junior Bailey Thompson had seven kills, five aces and three digs. Ella Torkelson had 19 assists and four digs and Ava Barton pitched in eight digs and eight aces.

Top-seeded Mercer now advances to the sectional semifinals against third-seeded Shell Lake on Thursday, with an opportunity to return to the sectional championship game on Saturday.

"Quite honestly, anything after tonight, with this group of kids, as surprising as they are, a win on Thursday would be icing on the cake," Schoeneman said. "We obviously would love to have another chance at the sectional final match to go to state, but we're just going to take one game at a time right now."

Mercer (24-3-2) battles Shell Lake at the Northwood School in Minong at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

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