By MIKE ECKERT
BATTLE CREEK — For the third straight year, Monroe St. Mary Catholic played for a Class C state title on Saturday.
St. Francis was on the other side of the net in its first state finals appearance.
Experience paid off as the Kestrels claimed their second title in three years with a 25-14, 24-26, 25-10, 25-9 win over the Gladiators at Kellogg Arena.
"We practiced yesterday just to keep us fresh, and came up today and practiced a little more," St. Mary coach Diane Tuller said. "I just think they wanted it so bad. That was the biggest part of it. They wanted it."
It's easy to see where the motivation came from for the top-ranked Kestrels (49-6). Last year, Monroe St. Mary lost a five-set heartbreaker to Morley-Stanwood.
"It's even better, especially for the seniors, because they were here last year and experienced that," Tuller said. "Their goal from the beginning of the season was we had to get back so we can show them who we are. My goal was to progress every game so we peak at the right time."
"They're ranked No. 1 and they play like the No. 1 team," St. Francis co-coach Rita Jones said. "They have a lot of good hitters and have a really good blocker in (Cassandra Haut). They're a great, established team. And now our girls know what it's like."
For St. Francis, the year ended with a 42-8-3 record. The Gladiators played for their first state title — all in the first year under Jones and Heather Simpson.
"We couldn't ask for a better season," Simpson said. "Yeah, we lost today, but I'd rather lose for the state title than lose for a regional. That was a great season and I can't be happier for our kids."
"We got to practice for weeks longer than other teams, be together and play volleyball," Jones said. "Don't get me wrong. It would have been awesome to win, but we're happy we're here."
After Monroe St. Mary took the first game wire-to-wire, St. Francis took its first lead of the match in Game 2 with a 5-4 advantage off a Kestrels mistake. From there, the game would be tied seven times.
After a 22-22 standstill, St. Mary got to game point off a Taylor Vuich kill and a St. Francis error. However, St. Francis rallied with the next four points to even the match off a Kaitlyn Hegewald block and three Kestrel mistakes.
"It felt really good, especially since it was a close game," Jones said of the win. "It showed the girls that the other team is human too. We put up a couple of blocks, they have a few misses and we came together a little bit. It was nice to show that we deserved to be here."
The win by St. Francis ignited the Kestrels, who dominated the third and fourth games right from the start. Junior outside hitter Kelsey Geiman played a big part of that with an MHSAA state finals record of 12 aces. The previous record was seven.
"I started it last season in AAU, but I was struggling in the beginning of the season with it," Geiman said of her serving. "But it all came together at a good time."
Geiman also added eight kills and seven digs.
"That was the game of her life," Tuller said. "She didn't play the first half of the season, but came in the second half and really played strong for us. She's been that extra hitter we needed. (She wasn't injured), she just didn't earn a spot. We always knew she had a good serve, but she was struggling at the beginning of the year with her hitting and her passing."
Geiman helped the Kestrels open the third game with a 10-0 lead thanks to five aces — including four straight. Later in the fourth game with St. Mary up 20-9, she served out the final five points.
"After the second game when we won it, I kind of thought we were in it," Simpson said. "We had momentum, but then their server "¦ she was amazing."
Monroe St. Mary also benefited from 16 kills from Cassandra Haut, 13 kills, eight digs and two blocks from Vuich and 10 kills and 3 blocks from McKenzie Todd. Haut also came up with a block on match point to secure the state title.
"We are really deep," Haut said. "We have a lot of hitters and we can count on anyone when we need it."
For St. Francis, senior Bridget Bussell had a big game with 18 kills, six digs and an assist. Freshman Madeline Rysztak had five kills and four digs and setter Kaitlyn Hegewald had 26 assists, seven digs and two kills.
St. Francis will look to build off this experience next year in the second year under Jones and Simpson.
"Hats off to our seniors, because we set the bar pretty high," Simpson said. "Coach Rita and I wanted to be competitive and our girls saw that. This is an experience our younger girls will gain from this. They were in the locker room saying they want to come back. And that's awesome. The future is very bright. We're loosing three tremendous seniors (in Bussell, Hegewald and Leah Schmerheim), but the (cupboard) is not empty, by any means. This is a great place for our program to be."