By MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — Three tight games.
Three St. Francis wins.
The host Gladiators emerged with a hard-fought 25-22, 25-23, 25-22 Lake Michigan Conference volleyball verdict over the defending champion Charlevoix Rayders on Thursday, improving to 5-0 in the league.
"Sometimes in volleyball it's hard for a team to finish, especially if the other team gets on a run," St. Francis co-coach Rita Jones said. "I think in that last game we told them, 'now's the time, we need to finish.' That's exactly what they did. As a coach, it's very exciting to see."
St. Francis (23-4-3) struggled out of the gate, trailing by as many as six points in the first game.
"We've kind of always started slow, but at the end we pick it up a little more," Gladiator senior Bridget Bussell said. "We kind of realize it and say 'let's stop.' Then we get going."
"The kids were a little tentative and played on their heels a little bit," co-coach Heather Simpson said. "Those were really the only close games we've had all year. So I think nerves got to them. But they're playing well and they stuck together. It's good for us to play in some close games."
Bussell helped lead the rally. She scored a number of points to close the gap and then tipped it over the net to tie the score at 22-22. On the next point, Bussell buried a kill for the first St. Francis lead since 1-0 and two points later closed it out with another kill.
"(Bussell) got back into the back row and things started to turn around," Jones said. "We're lucky to have such a strong hitter."
The second game was Charlevoix's turn to rally. The Rayders (11-9-5, 3-2 LMC) trailed by as many as nine in the early going and were down 23-16 before Cassidy Peebles-Marfuta served seven straight points to tie it at 23-23.
Then, a couple of Rayders errors gave the 25-23 win to St. Francis.
In the third game, no team lead by more than four points. Charlevoix got a point when Bussell touched the net to make it 23-22 Glads, but St. Francis closed it out on a Rayders serving error and a point when Bussell went for a kill and a Charlevoix player touched it twice on the return.
"We mostly get pumped up," Bussell said of the close games in the final points. "We know we have to take it."
Bussell finished with 20 kills, three aces and four blocks. Kaitlyn Hegewald had 26 assists and two blocks, Madeline Rysztak had three blocks, two aces and seven digs while Haley Bussell had a strong floor game.
For Charlevoix, Madeline Boss was perfect serving with 10 kills and seven digs, Karley Pearsall had seven kills, 12 digs and two aces, Jennaca Holecheck had 15 digs and three aces while Peebles-Marfuta was 13-for-13 serving.
Halfway through the season, St. Francis has only lost four times and is currently ranked No. 5 in Class C.