After getting swept by Bronson in the 2016 Class C state semifinals, then-assistant Calumet coach Matt Laho made a promise to his returning players in the Kellogg Arena locker room that they would be back in Battle Creek the following season to compete for a state title. Promise kept.
The Copper Kings dominated and then showcased their ability to make plays in the clutch in a sweep over the Houghton Lake Bobcats (25-12, 25-23, 25-23) Tuesday in Munising. Calumet advances to face Bronson Friday at 2 p.m. in Battle Creek for a rematch of last season’s defeat.
“This is what we’ve been working for all year,” said Laho, the first-year head coach. “If anybody can watch the way the girls work in practice, the way we’re winning wouldn’t surprise anybody.
“Seeing (Bronson) last year will help us. Getting back to Battle Creek and having some familiarity with it will help the girls be more ready for it.”
The Calumet faithful made the 155-mile trek to Munising, while the Houghton Lake fans traveled 235 miles for a matchup between two teams who knew little of each other. Less than two minutes into the match, it was clear to everyone in attendance who the superior team was.
Calumet senior Lea Bjorn swung for three powerful tone-setting kills to start the match before the Copper Kings would eventually build a 9-0 advantage. Bjorn tallied 12 of her match-high 24 kills in the opening set as the Bobcats’ block was rendered useless.
“Always at the beginning, I feel like I have to start off swinging hard,” Bjorn said. “Even if I sometimes hit it into the net at the beginning, I just think that the next one is going over, so I just try to start with hard swings.
“A lot of times on the block I could see cross was open so that’s where I avoided the block at first. Somebody told me line was open so I hit line a couple times. Sometimes the back row just tells me what happens, or if I can see cross is open.”
Calumet’s quick starts continued to be a theme for the rest of the night. Bjorn made it 5-0 in the second set on a hard-swinging kill, while three Houghton Lake miscues opened up the third set for a 3-0 Calumet lead.
“We just weren’t sharp,” Houghton Lake head coach Larry Kelly said. “As slow as the start was, I was surprised. But not surprised (we came out slow) after four hours in a bus and not being used to that kind of travel stuff.To start slow was one thing, but to start as slow as we did was very uncharacteristic. We usually get our feet a little bit quicker.”
And they did, eventually.
The Bobcats recovered and pushed Calumet to the brink of each set. In the second, it was junior Kelli Ignat tallying a kill to cut Calumet’s lead to 24-23. But a Houghton Lake service error allowed Calumet to escape with a 2-0 lead in the match.
“(Houghton Lake) battled and did a good job of getting us on our heels a little bit,” Laho said. “They got us to make some mistakes but overall, our girls were able to turn it around.”
Calumet faced the most adversity in the third after they appeared poised to cruise to a sweep when junior Celia Kiilunen tallied two of her 11 kills for a 21-14 lead.
However, the match turned thanks to four Calumet errors, allowing Houghton Lake to score seven unanswered points to tie the set at 21. The Bobcats took their first and only lead of the match, 22-21, when Calumet was called for a double contact.
But coming through in clutch situations has been nothing new for a Calumet team that has yet to lose a dual match this season (19-0). Led by a group of seniors that has known nothing but success since playing together as seventh-graders, they delivered when it mattered one more time.
Senior Brooke Kariniemi, who’s been Calumet’s defensive force in the middle this season, stood tall and recorded two blocks to put her team ahead 23-22. A Houghton Lake error gave the Copper Kings a 24-23 lead, and Kariniemi and Bjorn each teamed up to record another block for the match-deciding point.
“They’ve been hammering out the reps on the footwork and eye work on the blocking, and it’s paying huge dividends late in the season,” Laho said.
Now Calumet must prep for the two-time defending Class C state champions. But for the eight returning seniors who faced Bronson last year, this time it feels different.
“Everybody actually really believes (this year),” Bjorn said. “Last year was more of a shock, kind of like, ‘Holy cow, we made it this far? We never been here before.’ But this time is the second time, so it’s more real and we have to focus in on every single ball.”
Wixom St. Catherine will take on Laingsburg at noon in the other semifinal.