A year ago the Calumet Copper Kings dropped a four-set road match to the Houghton Gremlins that would ultimately force the two rivals to split the regular season West-PAC volleyball championship.
That loss irked the nine seniors on this season’s Calumet squad, so they set out to leave no doubt about who would be this year’s reigning conference champion.
They did it, but it was far from perfect. But despite the flaws, Calumet’s signature ability to deliver when it mattered most was on full display in a five-set thriller over Houghton (25-18, 19-25, 20-25, 25-15, 15-13) Tuesday in the same gym where they felt the pain of defeat in 2016.
“We didn’t want to be the team that lost to Houghton again, in Houghton, to settle for co-conference champs,” Calumet senior Lea Bjorn said. “We had to fight for what we want, even when we aren’t playing our best game.”
Bjorn finished with a match-high 16 kills but was forced to improvise when Houghton’s block was limiting her attack. With a 14-13 lead in the match-deciding set, Bjorn tipped the ball over the block, sending the ball to the floor in the middle of Houghton’s defense for the match-winning point.
It wasn’t the powerful kill the hard-swinging hitter is known for, but it was the most important point of the season to date.
“The way we taught her this week was to hit it where the block wasn’t,” Calumet head coach Matt Laho said. “Just find open spots on the floor. For a while there, that middle was there so that’s where she was putting the ball.”
All five sets had a district title feel, but none more so than the fifth. Students stood and raucously cheered every point, while a swing of momentum was felt with the deafening screams when a team went ahead.
Houghton (3-2 West-PAC) took a 4-2 lead after a kill from senior Harlee Froberg for the Gremlins’ biggest lead of the set. From there, Calumet (6-0 West-PAC) scored the next two points to tie the match at 4 before the teams would alternate points until a kill from Houghton senior Kendra Monette tied it at 13.
Calumet senior Brooke Kariniemi put the Copper Kings ahead with a kill in front of the net, setting up Bjorn’s game-winning tip.
“It was a well-played match between two really good teams. Just back-and-forth,” Houghton head coach John Christianson said. “What it really came down to was the first to get up two and win by two. Tied at 13, it was just who would break through and get up by two, and Calumet played those two points better than we did.”
Even the relatively reserved Laho, who usually sits calmly at the end of the bench during the game, found himself caught up in the emotions of the dramatic match.
“It’s exciting. It’s hard for me because I’m a competitive person,” he said, “but I try to stay as even-keeled as I can in the game. But big points at the end get me fired up.”
Each team rode the roller coaster of emotions as they exchanged runs in each set.
In the opener, Calumet closed with a 6-1 advantage, capped by one of nine kills from junior Celia Kiilunen for a 25-18 lead. But miscues later killed any momentum Calumet had in the opener, allowing the Gremlins to take the next two sets, 25-19, 25-20, putting Calumet on the brink of losing its first local match of the season.
The Gremlins finished the second by outscoring Calumet 10-4 for the win and scored the final four points in the third for the 25-20 victory.
Houghton senior Kendra Monette tallied the final point in each set, scoring a kill in the second before getting a friendly roll on the net for an ace in the third set. Monette finished with 13 kills and 24 digs.
“Kendra just gave us everything that she had,” Christianson said. “She was all over the floor doing everything that we ask her to do: passing balls, hitting balls, digging balls and chasing balls. She played phenomenally.”
Houghton senior Jada Markham also chipped in with 10 kills, while senior Mackenzie Klein had 29 assists. Senior Madi Dillinger finished with 32 digs.
With Houghton keeping Calumet out of synch, shared conference titles for the second consecutive season was looking like a more realistic possibility, considering how the night started.
Not so fast.
Calumet forced the fifth set when they closed on a 7-0 run for a 25-15 win in the fourth, with senior Brea Johnson serving for the final six points. Senior Allison Spence also added two of her nine kills during the run.
“The biggest thing was to believe, believe, believe,” Laho said about what he told his team with them trailing 2-1 in the match. “If we can control our side of the floor and stop making errors, make good decisions with the ball, we’ll be fine.
“We just had to understand that we know what we want to do. We don’t change our game plan because of the game unless we see something we need to adjust. Just put the ball where we practice, and make sure we execute.”
Senior Niina Anderson tallied 20 assists and senior Brea Johnson added 15. Defensively, senior Amber Johnson finished with 30 digs.
The Copper Kings won all three matches against Houghton this season, winning in five sets on Oct. 3 in Calumet and in three sets in a best-of-three match for the Houghton Invite title on Saturday. Barring a massive upset from the L’Anse Purple Hornets in the district play-in game against the Copper Kings, the two rivals will meet again on Nov. 1 in a district semifinal in Calumet. No trophy will be handed out to the winner, but the team who advances will be heavily favored to eventually win the regional championship.
“We know we can play with them, but we have to prove to ourselves that we can actually beat them,”Christianson said of Calumet. “We’ll have one more shot at it.”
Next, Calumet heads to Lake Linden-Hubbell on Thursday. Houghton travels to Hancock for the Copper Spike match.