By MIKE DUNN Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — McBAIN — Things looked pretty bleak for the St. Francis volleyball team after the first two games of Tuesday’s Class C regional semifinal clash with Boyne City.
The Ramblers were rolling at that point. They slugged their way past the Gladiators 25-13 in a decisive game two and were just one more win away from advancing to the regional title match.
It didn’t happen that way, though. The Gladiators somehow came all the way back, rallying to take the final three games and keep their season alive, with a 23-25, 13-25, 25-18, 25-23, 15-12 victory.
St. Francis, which advanced to the state finals a year ago, faces perennial powerhouse Beal City on Thursday at McBain for the regional championship.
“I just told the girls to relax and do what you know you can do,” Glads’ co-coach Heather Simpson said of the talk she had with her players between games two and three. “If you don’t, we’re gonna go home.”
The message was heeded by the Gladiators, big time. They broke away in game three to post a 25-18 win, rallied to take a tense, seesaw game four by a narrow 25-23 margin and then rallied again to win the fifth game 15-12.
“The girls never stopped believing in themselves,” Simpson said. “For whatever reason, we were very flat in the first two games. When we finally got into a groove starting in game three, we started playing pretty good.”
Sophomore outside hitter Madeline Rysztak took the first two games to get warmed up and then was a rocket launcher at the net. She fueled the offensive fire in the final three games, generating one hard smash after another, often with sweet setups from teammate Megan Knudsen, while finishing with a game-high 24 kills.
In game four, she launched back-to-back kills during a run in which the Glads rallied from a 19-16 deficit to tie the match at 21 and she also scored the final point. In game five, she delivered an ace to give St. Francis a lead it would not relinquish. Her final kill of the night put the Glads on top 13-10.
“Number 8 (Rysztak) really started hitting for them and that made a big difference,” acknowledged Boyne City coach Casie Parker. “She really turned it on in the third game.”
There was little to choose between the teams in game four, with the lead seesawing back and forth with every few volleys. All the Ramblers had to do was come out on top to leave the court as winners, but they couldn’t pull away on the scoreboard from the stubborn Glads.
The Ramblers led 19-16 after junior Ali Johnson made a block and 21-19 after libero Erin Baker served an ace. But the Glads stormed back as long-armed freshman middle hitter Juliana Phillips made a block and Rysztak spiked one just past the outstretched arms of senior Kylie Hicks to tie it at 21.
Senior Olivia Hardy scored on a block for St. Francis to break a 23-23 tie and then Rysztak clinched it with a sizzling kill.
In game five, the Ramblers jumped to a 5-3 lead behind kills from Hicks and Paige Hornbeck but the Glads came back again, tying the game at 7 behind a kill from Haley Bussell. Then Rysztak scored an ace to give the Glads the lead and they wouldn’t trail again.
Boyne junior Paige Hornbeck blasted back-to-back kills to bring the Ramblers within a point, 13-12, but the Glads posted the final two points to earn their shot at the regional title.
“This is just so awesome,” Simpson said. “Starting from the third game, the girls played lights out. Boyne knew at that point we weren’t going away and I think it got in their heads a little bit. The girls kept believing and kept building confidence and momentum.
“You have to feel bad for a very good Boyne team,” she added. “They’ve had a great season.”
Parker, who is stepping down after 10 years as the Rambler coach, congratulated the Glads for making their comeback.
“We made some mistakes but you have to give (St. Francis) credit for hanging in there and coming back the way they did,” she said.
“I’m very proud of the girls and very proud of what they accomplished this year,” she added. “It’s the best season ever for Boyne. This is a great group of girls and they’ve been great to work with and so have the parents.”
Hicks capped her outstanding prep career with a team-high 14 kills and Hornbeck recorded 15 kills. Hornbeck was also 100 percent at the stripe and so was Megan Rushlow.
The Ramblers finished with a 47-13-5 record to go with a district title.
In addition to her 24 kills, Rysztak also had 17 digs for the Glads. Bussell earned 17 digs also and Knudsen served up 38 assists. Junior Sophie Spencer secured six kills with 14 digs. Hardy had four blocks and Phillips had three.
Thursday’s championship match at McBain between Beal and St. Francis is set for 6 p.m.