HANCOCK - Wednesday night's volleyball match was bound to be close between 1-7 Finlandia and 0-8 Northland. It was, but unfortunately for the Lions in their home opener, both teams left the Paavo Nurmi Center with 1-8 records.
The duel between the two young teams - only five of the 21 players in the match were upperclassmen - went the distance before the Lumberjills captured a 3-2 win (18-25, 25-23, 25-22, 19-25, 15-10).
"That is tough. To start off winning the first game and playing so solidly, and just kind of breaking down a little bit," Finlandia first-year coach Kristan Schuster said. "I thought mentally we came back in the fourth, and I thought the momentum would carry us right through the fifth, but it didn't."
Finlandia junior Augustine Brutus vies for a ball against Northland’s Tayler Viegut during the third set of the Lumberjills’ 3-2 win in the Lions’ home-opening match Wednesday evening at the Paavo Nurmi Center. (DMG photo by Stephen Anderson)
Both teams showed a classic sign of youth in a sport so often swayed by momentum: taking their foot off the gas with a lead.
Finlandia used two separate five-point runs to pull away late in the first set - including two of Katelyn Anderson's team-high three aces - before one of Northland's 14 serve errors capped off the set win. But, up 1-0 in the match, the Lions surrendered the first three points of the second set.
They couldn't get closer than two points away until another five-point run mid-way through the set made it 14-13 Finlandia. After a four-point Northland run, the Lions again strung together an impressive burst, scoring six straight points, including three of Augustine Brutus's 11 kills.
Unfortunately for the hosts, it was another six-point run, this time by the Lumberjills, that deadlocked the match at 1-all. After Northland had its only negative hitting percentage set in the first set (-.024), Finlandia had its only one in the second (-.023).
"We've been struggling all year long with our hitting percentage," Schuster said. "It's been improving, but until as a team we're able to hit at least over .100, if not .200 and better, we're not going to win these matches."
Even though Finlandia scored the first four points of the third set, the hitting percentage woes struck again as their 13 kills were matched by 13 errors. The set was tied seven different times in the early going before a pair of four-point runs put the visitors up 17-12 and 21-15, and Northland locked it down, 25-22.
But, just as Finlandia perhaps took its foot of the gas after the first set, Northland may have done the same after the third. Aside from it being 1-1 to start, the Lions led the rest of the way, opening up leads of 7-2, 15-8 and 21-12 before finally clinching the win on a fourth set-point attempt.
"I think sometimes, we're a younger team, they might just get comfortable knowing we're up 2-1," Northland first-year coach Kim Falkenhagen, a national champion and Hall of Famer at Northern Michigan University?in the 1990s, said. "Not that we're taking it easier or giving it up, it's just one of those things where we weren't playing as hard as we were in the first two games. We were able to bring that back for the fifth."
The Lumberjills scored the first two points of the decisive fifth set, and even though the Lions tied it up at 3-3, the hosts' hitting was tentative and the visitors were visibly fired up. Northland rattled off five straight points, including a Tayler Viegut kill after Finlandia called timeout. Viegut led all players with 17 kills, five aces and 4 1/2 blocks. Averi Kanyuh, who had 11 kills for the visitors, tallied two in a row to make it 10-5. Trailing 14-8, Finlandia fended off two straight match points before Breanna Merriam's serve hit the top of the net to seal Northland's first win.
"It felt really great," said Falkenhagen, whose team's hitting percentage improved with each set, peaking at .320 in the fifth. "It's been something we've been working towards and something the girls needed to help with the confidence.
"... It was fun, really intense, just a lot of fun."
The referees had to intervene several times to silence artificial noisemakers from the stands, as the atmosphere certainly wasn't lacking during the first of only four Finlandia home volleyball matches this season.
The Lions travel to Milwaukee this weekend to play in the Alverno College Quadrangular, and their next home match isn't until Oct. 1 against Northland International University. The rematch against Northland College is Sept. 25 in Ashland, Wis.
Wednesday, Emma Cole led Finlandia with 12 kills, while Anderson, a freshman setter, had 36 assists. Brierra Ruska's 17 digs led the hosts, followed closely after by Merriam's 16 and Dominique Tremblay's 14. Locals Molly Monette (Lake Linden-Hubbell alumna) and Rebecca Hulkonen (L'Anse) also saw their first significant action in a Lions uniform, with Monette contributing five kills.