In recent years, the battle of these two heavy-weights has rarely gone to five sets, but it happened before a large crowd, in a hot gym, last night in Calumet.
For five sets, the Calumet Copper Kings and Houghton Gremlins pushed each other to the brink in a match full of momentum changes.
Offensive kills were executed with incredible force by the abundance of athletic hitters, and the defenses sacrificed their bodies across the floor to dig the ball up in what was an exhibition of two of the best teams in the U.P.
But it was Calumet’s hitters that eventually found a crease in Houghton’s block to make the difference, propelling the Copper Kings to a five-set (23-25, 25-19, 25-19, 20-25, 15-11) West-PAC victory over the Gremlins Tuesday in Calumet.
“We dug ourselves a hole throughout all the matches with our hitting errors,” Calumet head coach Matt Laho said. “I don’t know what it was about (Houghton’s) block, but it got our hitters out of a routine and they tried to dip and dunk with them, which is not our style of play. Once they started swinging at the ball, good things were happening for us.”
Senior Lea Bjorn led the Copper Kings’ attack and entered the Calumet record books with her 28 kills, eclipsing the single-match school record by Hailey Wickstrom, who recorded 26 in Calumet’s quarterfinal victory against Traverse City St. Francis on Nov. 15, 2016.
Houghton certainly made Bjorn work for it by routinely sending two defenders at her for the block.
“My coach just kept telling me to hit line,” Bjorn said. “It somehow takes them by surprise or they can’t get a good touch on it. Then both me and Celia (Kiilunen) started to hit line and it started to be successful.
“I also just started not to worry about the block, because when I worry about the block, that’s when I hit it into it, so I just go up and swing.”
Kiilunen had her coming out party as a premier hitter, recording 19 kills. She was at her best when it mattered most, tallying six of those kills in the final set, including the final two points of the match.
“She’s a competitor,” Laho said of Kiilunen. “She wants to win, and she was frustrated she missed a serve (in the last set). So she was trying to come out here and do stuff in the front row to make up for that and she did.
“Once she found line was working for her, she just kept hitting it there and found a good hole there.”
Working on the timing of the block has been a point of emphasis for Houghton, and the extra attention paid off in the first set as the Gremlins (3-1 West-PAC) recorded numerous deflections and limited the Calumet attack in the opener to win 25-23.
But Calumet’s hitting changes were the difference in rallying to take the next two, 25-19, 25-19.
“They made some really good adjustments,” Houghton head coach John Christianson said. “We did not read their hitters well enough. I’m not sure if we thought they were just going to pound it into our block all night.
“And Calumet, to their credit, did a great job of covering the block. After we got a couple of roofs, early, they got almost everything back up off the floor, which made it a lot harder for us to finish off.”
Calumet’s hitting errors crept back into the fourth set, allowing the Gremlins to take a decisive 25-20 win to push the match to a deciding fifth set.
The Gremlins took a 10-8 lead when senior Jada Markham recorded one of her 10 kills. Calumet (4-0 West-PAC) responded with a 7-1 run to close the match, with Kiilunen notching five kills in that span, while Bjorn added an ace and a kill.
“The big difference was that at two of the sets they won, they were the aggressor,” Christianson said. “They were the team that was swinging, and we were basically just content to send it back. You can’t do that against a good team.
“They kept swinging, and you can only dig so many and block so many.”
Kendra Monette led the Gremlins’ offense with 18 kills, including the final four points in Houghton’s opening set victory.
Defensively, Houghton’s Madi Dillinger had 42 digs; Calumet’s Amber Johnson finished with 39 digs, and Bjorn added 34 digs.
Calumet split setting duties between Brea Johnson (27 assists) and Niina Anderson (26), while Houghton’s Mackenzie Klein dished out 32 assists.
Next, Houghton heads to Lake Linden-Hubbell on Thursday; Calumet hosts West Iron County on the same day.