BY MIKE DUNN Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — MCBAIN — The road finally ended for a young St. Francis volleyball team here Thursday in the Class C regional finals.
The Gladiators gave the third-ranked Aggies of Beal City a fight before falling in four games, 25-23, 25-27, 25-21, 25-19. Every game was a battle, but in the end the Aggies had a little too much firepower up front.
“We played some of the best volleyball today that we’ve played all season, but they have so many hard hitters,” said St. Francis co-coach Rita Jones. “There’s never any let up. I thought we matched their intensity but we couldn’t quite match their hitting. I was still really proud of our girls and the effort they gave. It was a great match against a great team.”
The third-ranked Aggies improved to 54-3-1 and advanced to a quarterfinal clash on Tuesday against Calumet. The Glads finished their second straight season with a long playoff run.
“Nobody expected us to get this far again with such a young team,” Jones said. “Last year we made it to the regionals (and ultimately to the state finals at Battle Creek) for the first time ever and we’re right back in the regional finals again this year. The girls are young but they came together and played great down the stretch to get us here.”
Co-coach Heather Simpson agreed.
“The girls battled and never gave up,” Simpson said. “We played against a really good team tonight and we were right there with them in every game. The girls left it all on the court and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Hats off to Beal for winning the region and hats off to our girls, too, for playing with so much passion and not giving an inch. It’s been a great run for us.”
The match with Beal was a stubborn, seesaw affair with numerous protracted volleys and remarkable diving saves on both sides of the court. The Glads rallied from a seven-point deficit to take game two and the Aggies rallied from an early 8-2 deficit to capture game three.
The difference in games three and four was the Aggies’ ability to pull away at the end. Game three was tied at 20 but the Aggies scored five of the final six points. Game four was tied at 19 but the Aggies outscored St. Francis 6-0 the rest of the way.
The Aggies’ big hitters, Addie Schumacher and Nicole Gross, rang up kills at critical times in the final run of each game. Schumacher finished with 22 kills, including two of the final three points of game three, and Gross scored 17, including two of the final four points in game four.
“St. Francis gave us exactly the kind of game we expected,” said Beal coach Kelly David. “We knew this would be a tough test for us. They did a good job of challenging our middles (Schumacher and Jordan Schneider) but Nicole (Gross) really stepped up for us and got some key kills. Fortunately, we were able to string together some points when we needed to.”
Sophomore outside hitter Madeline Raysztak stormed the nets again for the Glads, securing a team-high 14 kills with two blocks. She was also strong at the stripe, earning five aces on the night.
Outside hitter Sophie Spencer had 11 kills and junior Haley Bussell recorded four. Senior Olivia Hardy, playing the final game of her productive prep career, had three blocks and two kills and long-armed freshman Juliana Phillips also had three blocks.
After losing game one by two points, the Glads trailed 18-11 in game two before staging a remarkable rally to earn the win. Sophomore Nicole Ehardt scored an ace during a five-point run at the service stripe while Hardy and Raysztak delivered back-to-back kills to trim the deficit to 18-16.
It went back and forth from there before the Glads pulled it out on the strength of a Raysztak kill and a tip by Spencer.
Spencer then started game three with a 6-0 run at the line and the Glads appeared to have a truck load of momentum going for them at that point. The Aggies rallied, however, behind the hitting of Gross and the serving of Schumacher to eventually go ahead 9-7. The game was tied at 14, 16 and 20 after that before the Aggies created some separation to win and gain a 2-1 lead in games. Game four followed pretty much the same script.
It was a loss for the Glads but the kind of loss you can’t feel too bad about, Simpson noted.
“It was just great volleyball tonight for both sides,” she said. “You hate to lose of course but we played our hearts out. It’s been an awesome year.”
Junior setter Megan Knudsen amassed 33 assists and covered the floor like carpeting, notching a team-high 16 digs with several diving saves. Raysztak and Ehardt each earned 14 digs while Hardy had 13 and Bussell made 11.
Jones and Simpson both commended seniors Hardy and Hannah Stachnik for the leadership they exhibited during the course of the season.