NEGAUNEE - Good party hosts they were not on Tuesday, but Ishpeming and Negaunee are more than happy to be facing each other in Thursday's MHSAA Class C district volleyball championship at Lakeview Memorial Gym.
Though it wasn't at the Hematites gym, Ishpeming welcomed a new team to this traditionally all-Marquette County district and sent L'Anse packing, 25-22, 25-18, 16-25, 26-24.
The Baraga County school had to be glad just to escape its usual WestPAC district that includes perennial volleyball powerhouses Houghton and Calumet, but didn't fare any better against Mid-Peninsula Conference competition.
Tuesday's winners return to Negaunee at 7 p.m. Thursday to decide the district championship, with that team advancing to the Norway regional on Tuesday, Election Day, to face Houghton or Calumet out of the Hancock district.
Neither team knew what to expect Tuesday, only getting scouting reports from fellow coaches who had faced each team during the season.
"One thing that really stood out for L'Anse was a real determination on defense," Ishpeming coach Amy Rautiola said. "And like any other sport, defense is what wins you championships."
The Hematites led almost wire-to-wire for the first 2 1/2 sets before the Purple Hornets mounted a comeback that earned them Set 3.
"I think in the third set we got a bit tired, both physically and mentally, because we came out and were so intense at the beginning of the match," Rautiola said.
But she was happy that her troops returned to form in Game 4 to seal the victory.
"We didn't really know anything about them or what they were going to do, so we came in to just play our own game and worry about what we were doing," said Ishpeming senior hitter Alesha O'Brien, whose 14 kills were far and away the most by any player among Tuesday's four combatants.
Many of O'Brien's opportunities looked difficult as she had to step out of bounds to make a big slam over the net. She said she actually preferred where her setters moved her to, though.
"I like to take it wide, then decide if I want to hit it hard or just tip it over," O'Brien said, adding that L'Anse most often took away the tips and invited her to slam it hard to the far corner.
Sophomore teammate Jessica Spencer added six kills and a block, while IHS freshman Sinead Korvela had four kills to go with five service aces.
Hornets coach Jennifer Wilson was happy with her team's never-say-die attitude despite losing the first two games.
"If I'm going to have to lose, and I don't like to, I feel much better about it when we go down fighting," she said. "We have a young team with a lot of juniors, and several who had to move into the lineup because of injuries."
Their spirit was evident even in the losses, as L'Anse held off set point four times in Set 1 and twice in Set 2.
In Set 3, Ishpeming raced to an 8-2 lead before the Hornets first tied it at 11-11 on an ace by Valerie Rajala and took the lead for good at 15-14 when Rajala's big hit proved unreturnable.
The junior hitter finished with nine kills, four aces and five blocks, the most complete line by any of Tuesday's players.
"I figured she'd be tough when I saw that she made the All-WestPAC team," Rautiola said.