TRAVERSE CITY — Grace Mischel got her mom a pretty nice present for her birthday.
Some believe an experience is often better than a physical gift, so Mischel gave her mom the experience of watching her daughter and the rest of the Elk Rapids varsity volleyball team win a Division 3 district championship Saturday.
“Best birthday ever,” Renee Mischel said to her daughter after the match. “The best ever.”
But Grace didn’t stop there.
As the team gathered at the east end of the Traverse City Central High School gymnasium, Grace led the players, coaches and remaining fans in a stirring rendition of “Happy Birthday,” much to the delight of her mother.
The 3-1 win (25-22, 25-17, 23-25, 25-15) was a delight for the Elks, who had lost the last three district championship matches to St. Francis.
“We have worked so hard this season for this moment,” Mischel said. “Our coach told us it would be us this year who were the champions. We really took that to heart. We worked well as a team. We all did our jobs.”
The first set was a back-and-forth battle with 14 lead changes and 13 ties. Neither team led by more than two points in the set until Elk Rapids went up 20-17.
The Elks took a 5-4 lead early in set two and did not relinquish it from there on out, eventually building a lead as big as nine at 20-11.
The third set was all Elk Rapids early. An Alena LaPointe ace put the Elks up 11-6 and forced St. Francis head coach Kathleen Nance to call a timeout. The Glads went on a run from there, scoring seven straight points for a 13-11 lead. Elk Rapids came back to tie the set at 18-18 and eventually took a 21-19 lead before the Gladiators ended on a 6-2 run.
Elk Rapids trailed just once in the fourth set, going down 1-0. But the Elks rattled off six straight points and avoided the pitfall that tripped them up in the third set.
“They just don’t quit,” Elk Rapids head coach Connie Gorno said.
The Elks now sit at 25-18-5. Gorno, who is in her fourth year as coach of the Elks, said the record doesn’t reflect how talented her team is. Gorno said this year’s slate of opponents is the toughest the Elks have faced in her tenure.
“It’s not so much about our record or winning. It’s about getting experience and having these girls learn from each other,” Gorno said. “I was never worried about our record.”
That experience helped when junior Lili Hoberg went down with an apparent knee injury late in the first set. Hoberg tried to play to start the second set but came out after the first point and did not return. She finished with one kill and an ace.
“I knew that when Lili went down, I could grab any one of my players and they’d go out and get the job done,” Gorno said. “They’re such a cohesive group, and it doesn’t matter who’s beside them.”
The Elks had contributions across the board from Bri Roberts (16 kills, five aces, five blocks, 23 digs), Morgan Wirtz (seven kills, two aces, 11 digs), Logan Reasoner (five kills, two blocks, two digs), Ava Knight (four kills, seven digs), Addison Jacobs (three kills, two blocks), Nevada Molby (three kills, seven blocks), LaPointe (two aces, three digs), Mischel (one ace, 33 serve receptions, 29 digs) and Ryleigh Yocom (one ace, two blocks, 13 digs, 36 assists).
The district title is the first for Elk Rapids since 2017.
Reasoner, who has been on varsity for three seasons, said finally beating St. Francis in a district championship match was a relief.
“We put an end to their three-peat,” Reasoner said. “Every year, we’d come to districts and it would be St. Francis. This year, we took over, and it feels amazing.”
Reasoner said the chemistry and close bonds on the team pushed them over the top.
“Everybody was blended together,” she said. “We played as a family.”
The Elks go on to face Charlevoix on the Rayders’ home court at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the regional opener.
“The energy is just buzzing, right now,” Mischel said. “Everyone is so excited.”
The loss for St. Francis puts an end to the Gladiators’ streak of nine consecutive district championships. The last time St. Francis failed to advance to at least the regional tournament was in 2011 when the Glads lost to Forest Area.
“A loss is always tough,” St. Francis head coach Kathleen Nance said. said. “Elk Rapids played a great game. They’re a great opponent. We wish them the best of luck.”
St. Francis got contributions from Gwyneth Bramer (seven kills, four blocks and a dig), Maggie Jarema (three blocks, five kills and three digs), Allee Shepherd (six digs), Emily Erhardt (20 digs and an ace), Avery Nance (27 assists, 16 digs and one kill), Alexis Ochab (two aces, three kills and six digs), Garnet Mullet (two aces, five kills and 14 digs) and Campbell Domres (nine kills). Ochab, Domres and Jarema are all seniors.
“At the end of the day, we have to leave this gym knowing that we’re worthy and that we’re good athletes and that we’re proud to wear the colors that we do,” Nance said.