BARAGA - After a strong start, the L'Anse Purple Hornets looked ready to cruise to a 3-0 volleyball win Thursday night in Baraga, but a victory in a rivalry match never comes that easy.
The host Vikings fueled the electric atmosphere in the gym with a third-set win and kept it close in a back-and-forth fourth set, but L'Anse's hustle and sound serve receive play paced the Purple Hornets to a 3-1 (25-20, 25-18, 23-25, 25-21) win.
"This was a huge win for us because Tuesday we had a really rough game (a 3-1 loss to Chassell)," said L'Anse coach Jennifer Wilson, who graduated from Baraga. "I always have a little more vested interest in this one."
L’Anse players celebrate a big kill by Valerie Rajala (10) in the third set of Thursday’s 3-1 Purple Hornet win over Baraga. From left to right besides Rajala are Chantell Ekdahl, Mercie Funke, Amanda Dufek and Heather McCarthy. (DMG photo by Stephen Anderson)
Everyone involved did, which made it that much harder to swallow for a Baraga squad that had won three in a row.
"We had a big week and we've been on a big winning streak here, so it's really tough to take one on the chin like this," said Baraga coach Peggy Reinsch, whose children attended L'Anse. "It's always a tough loss for us when we lose to them. It's such a tough rivalry."
Wilson credited the team's overall hustle in the win, which led to success in all areas of the court, particularly hitting out of the middle from Valerie Rajala.
The Purple Hornet junior tallied a match-high 18 kills, eight digs and seven blocks in the match, including four kills in a key six-point run in the second set.
But Baraga actually set the tone initially with several long scoring runs in the first set. Then again, every time Baraga tried to pull away L'Anse responded with an even longer run. The Vikings jumped out to a 5-0 lead, but L'Anse put together a six-point run; later they led 19-16, but L'Anse scored eight in a row, leading to a 25-20.
The second set L'Anse used three separate runs of three points to open up a 15-10 lead, and that's when Rajala took over. Her four timely kills helped up the lead to 21-10. Baraga actually put together a six-point run of its own a few points later, but it was too deep a hole to dig out of.
"That one string, we just could not seem to match up with her and stop her," Reinsch said.
"I just told her keep hitting, keep hitting," Wilson said. " They were getting frustrated and she was hitting open spots."
But Reinsch put a double block up against Rajala, which helped lead Baraga to a big third set. An eight-point run to increase the score to 15-8 was more than enough for the Vikings, who extended the match to a fourth set with one of Rebecca Larson's team-high 11 kills.
L'Anse jumped out to 6-2 and 16-9 leads in the fourth set, and while Baraga chipped the deficit to 23-21 aided by several L'Anse serve errors, the Purple Hornets tacked on the final two points in succession.
"I'm proud of them. They did not give up and they kept fighting," Reinsch said. "I wish we could have gotten to that fifth game."
In addition to Rajala, L'Anse received well-rounded efforts from several others: Heather McCarthy tallied 25 assists and six digs; Becca Hulkonen had eights kills, eight digs and two aces; Mercie Funke had six kills; Amanda Dufek had eight digs; Brianna Mayo had four kills, four blocks and two aces; and Shantell Ekdahl added three aces.
Baraga got 19 assists, 11 digs and two aces from setter Kelly Bedner, who was also a perfect 17 of 17 on serve receive; and a match-high 14 digs from Winter Keefer.