By JAMES COOK
BATTLE CREEK — On the opening day of firearm deer season, Traverse City St. Francis was shooting for the state finals.
Traverse City St. Francis rallied from down two games to Unionville-Sebewaing to win 23-25, 21-25, 25-19, 25-21, 15-13 to advance to the school's first state championship game in volleyball Thursday at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek. The Class C title match will be noon Saturday against No. 1-ranked Monroe St. Mary's (48-6) at the same venue.
"We were thinking, 'We're here, so let's just do it,'" said senior middle blocker Bridget Bussell, who had 28 kills, four aces and 19 digs. "After we won the third game, it felt really good. And then definitely after the fourth."
And especially after the fifth, when Sophie Spencer's hit was partially returned by two Patriots defenders before it landed out of bounds and the St. Francis bench and crowd erupted.
"It's a feeling that's just so great — I really can't explain it," said senior Leah Schmerheim, who served up three aces in the No. 8 Gladiators' comeback. "I love all my teammates, because we've worked so hard to get here. I'm just so glad we did it."
St. Francis athletic director Tom Hardy, who was nervously rubbing kids' hair in the last few games for good luck, said the historic victory will put the first volleyball banner in the gym. It's TCSF tradition to only hoist banners for state champions or runners-up — and Thursday's win clinched at least a runner-up spot.
"They just don't quit — they don't quit," co-coach Heather Simpson said. "Even when we were way back, they were like, 'We've got it.' They kill us coaches. They drive us crazy, but you just have to love them. They are the most lovable group of kids I have ever been around."
It was the first five-game match the Gladiators (42-7-3) have played all season, and the coaches weren't initially sure how the team would react.
"You kind of wonder about that, but they were like, 'Yeah, we got it,'" Simpson said.
"We may not have the best players, but we have the best attitudes and we have one of the best team chemistries," SF co-coach Rita Jones said. "And that, coupled with very good players equals a team that is hard to beat."
It sure proved so in the final three games.
Unionville-Sebewaing (38-9-4) won the first two sets and appeared to be in control after holding the Glads to .028 and .105 hitting percentages in going up 2-0.
"They told us, 'You're here for a reason. We didn't make it this far just to give up now. Give it your all and do what we know you can do,'" Schmerheim said of the coaches pep talk after the 0-2 deficit.
St. Francis started off the third stanza with a 9-1 run, punctuated by three of Spencer's five aces on the day. USA pulled as close as three at 22-19, but the Glads closed out the game with a 3-0 run that put them back in the mix.
"I never doubted that there was a possibility," Jones said. "I was a little worried about the level of intensity the first two games. It wasn't like how we play. This low-intensity game, we don't do well in. I told them it kind of looked like slow-motion."
In the fourth game, Unionville led 18-16 after a neck-and-neck game in which neither team led by more than two to that point and the lead changed hands six times, with 10 ties.
The Glads called timeout and then went on a small 4-0 run that included a Kaitlyn Hegewald stuff block, two Bussell aces and a Spencer kill and wouldn't trail again before Bussell's kill sealed a 25-21 win and sent the game to a deciding fifth game. Hegewald, the team's only other senior along with Bussell and Schmerheim, had 46 assists, two blocks and 12 digs.
The Patriots jumped out to a 5-1 lead before St. Francis rallied once again with a 7-1 spurt that included two Schmerheim aces and blocks by Bussell, Madeline Rysztak and Olivia Hardy to lead 8-6.
"I'm just so excited," Rysztak said. "Being a freshman, it's so amazing to be here and be able to play for a state championship. I knew we could push through — and that's what we did."
Back-to-back points by Bussell — on a kill and an ace — led to a 10-10 tie as the two teams raced to be the first to 15.
"Bridget is so good," said Rysztak, who had 13 kills, 10 digs and three blocks. "She can hit the line, she can hit the cross. She's just amazing."
Tied at 13, Spencer — who had 12 kills on the day — notched the last two points.
Top-ranked Monroe St. Mary's advanced to the finals with a 28-30, 25-16, 25-16, 25-10 win over No. 5 Concord.
The St. Francis student section at the end line featured many dressed in bathrobes — the latest in an assortment of themes throughout the playoffs. The raucous Gladiator crowd easily outdid that of the USA fans.
"With all the cheering from our fans and our friends and family, it helped the team and we felt like we could beat anybody," Schmerheim said. "It really helped a lot."
One USA student in a red, white and blue wig was even holding up sign that said, "Spandex is better than deer hunting."
And St. Francis still bagged a trophy.