By JAMES COOK email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — BUCKLEY — First times all around.
For Bellaire, it the first time in school history the volleyball team has advanced to a regional final.
For Leland, it was the first look at an unusual defense that threw the Comets momentarily for a loop.
Next, the two will meet up Thursday in the Class D regional finals at Buckley.
Bellaire needed five games to dispose of AuGres, winning 20-25, 25-13, 20-25, 27-25, 15-10.
Down two games to one, Madalyn Balon recorded back-to-back aces to put the Eagles up 19-15 in the fourth game. The Wolverines made a little run, but a Renee LaLone stuff block gave Bellaire the momentum back and LaLone eventually closed out the 27-25 game with another block to force a decisive fifth.
"We struggled early with our serving," Bellaire coach Kelli Fischer said. "Our serving was on at the beginning of our season and it kind of started to fade. Then we picked it back up at districts."
Part of that was because Balon didn't serve much during the season because of a shoulder injury.
But on Tuesday, she recorded 10 aces to lead the way from the line, adding 20 assists. Gillian Nevarez added three aces and Brandy O'Neal two.
The Eagles won their district last year — also a volleyball program first — before falling to Leland in regionals.
"We lost to them, but it was hard-fought," Balon said. "We took them to four games. Hopefully, this year we'll get it."
Bellaire (13-15-5) had to get past Division 1 basketball recruit Cassidy Boensch first. The AuGres standout was 6-foot-2 as a freshman last year, is already drawing interest from Big Ten schools and looks even taller as a sophomore.
"I've never seen a girl that tall," Balon said. "We just had to get around her. She's only a sophomore? She'll be a threat later on."
In the fifth game, Balon strung together four consecutive service points to give Bellaire an 8-4 lead. AuGres wouldn't get any close that three from there on out, as Balon sealed the 15-10 win with a tip into the corner.
"We've never played a middle (hitter) that tough," Fischer said. "She was outstanding. It was hard to get it past her. She's got a reach that goes on forever. And when they get the ball up to her, she's got a wicked hit, too.
"We try to work out of our middle. But she covers left, right, middle. It was like, how can we find a quick set or a way around her? We hit into her a lot, but when we found our way around a few times, it was good."
"This is amazing," Balon said. "I just never thought it would be possible, but we made it possible. I'm so proud of my team. We proved them wrong and proved myself wrong."
Niepoth finished with eight kills and 18 digs, LaLone added eight kills and three blocks, Tiffany Clovis had 23 digs and O'Neal had three kills and 10 digs.
Leland then earned its third straight regional final berth with a 25-19, 25-8, 20-25, 25-11 victory.
The Comets appeared to be in control — despite Bear Lake's unusual defensive scheme of not putting up any blockers — in winning the first two games, before the Lakers claimed the third game.
"We have to take care of things on our side of the net, which we didn't in the third game," Leland coach Laurie Glass said. "We didn't pass well, our setter was having to set way off the net, we couldn't run our offense. We've never played against a team that didn't block anybody. That was a little unnerving at first to figure out what to do. It feels like you should be able to hit the ball straight down, so it kind of messes with your head a little. It was a good strategy on (Bear Lake coach Amy Falk's) part. We hadn't seen that."
"When you have five people back there on defense, it's tough to find a piece of floor that's not covered. It makes you want to do more — and you don't have to."
Bear Lake coach Amy Falk said the defense was a change of pace from their normal scheme, and was meant to slow down Leland's aggressive hitters. And it did.
"I knew they had a lot of big hitters — and I've got a lot of little girls," Falk said. "And they can't get above the net. So I said, 'Just stand back from net. They won't know what to do.' And then once they do, we can go back and put up the block. It worked for awhile. It made (Glass) think for awhile."
Outside of 6-2 Emileigh Ferguson and 5-11 Hannah Harrington, the Lakers don't boast much size on a team that still managed a 30-18 record.
"It definitely got into my head the whole time, up until the fourth," Leland hitter Noa Yaakoby said. "I guess I'm used to teams attacking hard and so I'm constantly moving."
In the first game, seven straight service points — including two aces — by Heather Burns put the Comets in control, 14-9. Bear Lake rallied to within two at 19-17, but Whittaker served up two aces and Burns another to help Leland close it out, 25-19.
"We just didn't receive the ball very well," Falk said. "I think a lot of calls (the referee) made on my setters kind of threw off our offense, because it made them second-guess their sets."
The Lakers were called for at least a half dozen double hits during the match.
Caitlin McKee started off the second game with two aces and Leland led 13-5 after three more by Burns. Jessica Flies served out the game with one ace and Whittaker capped it off with a stuff block.
In that second game, five of Leland's six servers had at least one ace.
"Whitney Schaub got us out of our passing funk," Glass said. "Caitlin set a pretty good offense when we could pass well. Felicia had some pretty good swings from the middle, which made them have to respect the middle — which is always a good thing."
Bear Lake came back to take the third game, as Emileigh Ferguson had six kills — including the final two — in a 25-20 victory.
"We received the ball a lot better that game," Falk said. "And I told them, 'Don't worry about the rest, just play your game.' They were able to overcome it that game. The last one, it just got in their heads. Then we started making mistakes. Once you make mistakes, it's hard to get past them."
Leland jumped out to a 9-2 lead in the fourth game on two Yaakoby kills and two more Whittaker aces. Schaub added two more of her match-total five aces and Jaden Prevost finished off the match with an ace.
"Our serve came alive in that last game," Glass said. "And you could see they had difficulty running their offense."
Bear Lake loses five of six starters from this year's squad. On Tuesday, Ferguson had 10 kills and four digs, Erika Hejl had five assists, Katie Millard put up two kills and two aces, McKenna Fink had five assists and Harrington chipped in two kills.
Leland was led by Miranda Harrison (five digs), Burns (seven digs, six aces), McKee (33 assists, foru aces, five digs), Yaakoby (19 kills, nine digs), Madison Trumbull (seven kills), Flies (two aces), Schaub (five aces, two kills, four digs), Eva Grobbel (three kills) and Whittaker (seven kills, seven aces, three blocks).
Thursday's regional final will pit Bellaire and Leland against each other for the first time since the Comets knocked the Eagles out of last year's postseason.
"Hopefully Thursday night I start off strong," Yaakoby said. "And end strong."