HOUGHTON - Houghton volleyball coach John Christianson is fond of saying volleyball comes down to which team has the most momentum-turning runs.
Thursday, it was a seven-pointer from senior setter Natalie Datto in the second set that made the difference.
The Gremlins took down Lake Linden-Hubbell 3-1 (17-25, 25-19, 25-17, 25-14) despite losing the first set in convincing fashion. But Datto's floating serve near the start of the second game threw the Lakes off-balance, and gave Houghton the upper hand they would never relinquish.
Houghton senior libero Mackenzie Hietala passes a serve in the second set Thursday against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Hietala recorded 15 digs and 27 perfect passes, according to coach John Christianson. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
"That really was the key," Christianson said. "It allowed us to open up just a bit, and we had some good plays after that. We hit well and we hit smart."
After a sluggish opening set, sharper passing - especially from senior libero Mackenzie Hietala - led to a faster offense and allowed Datto to choose from a myriad of weapons outside and in. Middle hitters Blaire Zenner and Elisa Jurmu led the squad with eight and six kills, respectively, while outside hitters Bronwyn Nettell and Jade Riutta chipped in five and four kills.
Datto took advantage of several second-ball tips to score four kills herself.
"We controlled the first ball, and we got it to Natalie so she could utilize a multitude of hitters," Christianson said. "When we pass well, we have options and we do increase the tempo. When we pass poorly, it is all high outside sets, and that slows down the game."
The increased tempo was especially effective as the Lake Linden defense struggles with quicker speeds.
"They sped up their game, and we don't handle speed well right now," Lakes coach Karen Keranen said. "We are slow in our block and it makes all the difference.
"It puts a picture to my words of what we need to work on in practice and why. They can see it, and I think it gives them an incentive to work harder. I was just telling my girls a good old quote from Ben Franklin, 'What hurts, instructs.'"
The tempo change resulted from a change in attitude between the first and second sets.
Christianson believed his girls were too tentative attacking the net, and that Lakes middles Brittni Kisul (15 kills) and Mandy Perreault (15 kills) were getting too many free swings as a result.
"I told them first of all that we have to stop playing the game on the top of the net if we weren't going to be aggressive," Christianson said. "Because the whole first set, every ball that was on the top of the net, they just pushed it down on our side. So I said you either have to keep the ball off the top of the net or you have to be aggressive and you have to attack it hard. And then we did both of those things."
Jurmu was at the center of the surging tenacity, chipping in four block kills to help control the middle of the court.
"We changed our mindset a lot, we needed to quit being tentative," Jurmu said. "We couldn't play on our heels all night, so we just came out aggressive and got it done."
The Gremlins continued to get the better of the Lakes in the third and fourth sets with error-free play. Several long rallies feel in Houghton's favor after sprayed passes or mishits ended the point.
"We played smart and we played focused," Christianson said. "Twenty-nine kills against just nine errors, that's really good. We did a good job keeping the ball in play when the kill swing wasn't there. Just get it in deep, and let the defense go again."