Calumet coach Matt Laho always says it’s the good teams who are able to battle back from adversity. In capturing the Copper Kings’ sixth consecutive regional volleyball title, they proved they were a good team.
Now, as they continue their postseason run, they’ll look to go down as a great team.
Calumet dominated the West Iron County Wykons for two sets (25-11, 25-8) before rallying from deficits of 7-1 and 14-8 to earn a 25-22 victory to secure a sweep for the Class C Region 24 title on Thursday in L’Anse.
Calumet will play Houghton Lake at 7 p.m. in Munising on Tuesday.
“When you see the banners on the wall and all the years of consecutive success, it’s like you don’t want to be the one who loses it,” Laho said. “You want to keep it going, so that’s something I pushed for this year. Pushed the girls hard and made sure they had that mindset that we could do this, and they did.”
The third set Thursday was the first time in eight days that Calumet has faced any sort of adversity. Since the four-set win over the Houghton Gremlins on Nov. 1 in the district semifinals, Calumet outscored the Chassell Panthers and St. Ignace Saints by a combined tally of 150-68. That scoring differential went to 200-87 before WIC gave Calumet its first legitimate challenge in the third set.
Two consecutive Calumet miscues gave WIC a 7-1 lead and the Wykons’ first real hope of winning a set. The Copper Kings scored the first seven points in the opener before leading by as much as 17-3. And the second did not go much better for WIC, who was outscored 21-5 down the stretch after trailing just 4-3.
“We finally let ourselves play ball instead of overthinking things,” WIC coach Brenda Grubbs said of the difference between the third set and first two sets where Calumet dominated. “We can’t do anything when you overthink, anything as simple as making a pass or making sure the ball goes over the net.”
WIC senior Rachael Tefft led her team’s offense in the third set with six of her team-high 10 kills as she placed the ball in the holes of the Calumet defense. Her fifth kill of the set gave WIC a 19-14 advantage.
“She does a nice job when she’s allowed to be on the net. She’s consistent that way,” Grubbs said. “But if the ball pulls her off the net, then she’s not able to see that as much or be as quick on it. It all depends on the position of the ball.”
Following Tefft’s kill, the WIC faithful who braved the snowy roads were at their loudest when they realized they had a legitimate shot to get back into the match. Still, the Copper Kings showed no panic or fear — instead, remaining composed and displaying a maturity beyond their years.
“It makes my job a lot easier,” Laho said of coaching a veteran group. “Even being down and giving up points, you know there’s decisions we can change and that we can climb back and that they will turn things around. You just kind of have to wait it out and let them figure stuff out on their own, and once they get it, we’re good to go.”
Going on a 6-0 run would qualify as “figuring it out.”
Junior Celia Kiilunen recorded two kills during the run and gave Calumet a 20-19 lead on a push kill to the far corner.
But the turning point came when Calumet senior Brooke Kariniemi put the Copper Kings ahead 23-22 and allowed Calumet senior Lea Bjorn to rotate to the front row with Kiilunen serving.
“That’s kind of the way we design our rotation. To make sure that at the end of games, (Lea) is up there closing it out,” Laho said. “When we get Celia serving and Lea in the front row, it’s a tough one-two and worked out well for us.”
Calumet senior Brea Johnson set Bjorn twice and each time, Bjorn emphatically swung for two powerful kills to ensure another regional trophy would be making its way to Calumet’s trophy case.
“Those last two points, I was like, ‘OK, I’m front row now, so now is the time I have to execute, especially now,’” Bjorn said. “I just like that I can swing my heart out at it (late in games), knowing that it has to be a kill and that I have to make a kill.”
Bjorn led Calumet with 20 kills, while Kiilunen added 13 kills and four aces. Johnson finished with 21 assists, and senior Niina Anderson had 16 assists. Defensively, senior Amber Johnson led the way with 28 digs, and Bjorn had 25 digs.
Calumet finds itself one game away from reaching the state semifinals in Battle Creek — a place the team vowed to return after being swept by Bronson in the state semifinals. A victory over Houghton Lake will likely set up another rematch with Bronson on Nov. 17 in Battle Creek. Bronson faces Monroe St. Mary Catholic in its quarterfinal match.
“Next week, knowing we can go to Battle Creek is more motivation,” Bjorn said. “Hopefully this quarterfinal game, we give it everything we got because the next game is at Battle Creek. It’s super exciting because we were there last year and got a taste of it.”