HANCOCK - The Hancock Bulldogs and senior Taylor Mattson grabbed onto the Copper Spike after Thursday's match and held on tight.
It looked like reunion with a long-lost friend, but in reality it was a first introduction.
For the first time in the four-year history of the rivalry trophy it fights for with Houghton, Hancock claimed it by defeating the Gremlins 3-1 (16-25, 25-20, 25-16, 25-23).
Hancock’s Taylor Mattson celebrates alongside teammates and students with the Copper Spike after the Bulldogs defeated Houghton 3-1 for the rivalry trophy Thursday at Hancock Central High School. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
"It felt like I won the Stanley Cup," Mattson, a senior playing the last home game of her career, said. "This is representing Hancock. I'm so happy for the team, I'm so happy we did this for the school, for the Hancock name."
Mattson's 14 kills played a major part of Hancock's offense and her 48 digs an even bigger part of Hancock's defense, but her serves dealt what might have been the knockout blow.
After dropping two sets in a row, Houghton had nursed an 8-2 lead in the fourth close to the finish line, going up 22-18. The Bulldogs got a sideout, then ran off five straight points to turn the momentum in their favor once and for all. Two of the points were aces and the third a poorly-passed ball.
Sydney Dillinger's kill stopped the bleeding temporarily, but on the second match point, Hancock concluded a long rally with a match-winning kill from Shannon Anderson.
"I have said a few times that we must mature, athletically, and they have responded very well as evidenced tonight. They are a very receptive group and they realize they are capable of playing with any team," Hancock coach Mary Kaminski said.
The Bulldogs had not won a set in any of the three previous Copper Spike matches, nor did they when the teams met in Houghton in September and after a first set they lost decisively, it took mental toughness not to slip into the same mode.
"We sat there and we said we believe," Mattson said.
Hancock won the first five points of the second set, including a pair of aces from Shannon Anderson. Two rotations later, the Bulldogs ran off six straight points for a 14-4 lead.
"I thought we were playing well, (Shannon Anderson) starts them off with five and I'm not sure we even got a ball back over the net," Houghton coach John Christianson lamented.
"We didn't pass, we didn't set, we didn't swing."
Houghton did recover to within 22-20, but Amanda Manninen's kill helped Hancock regain its balance, and a pair of Gremlin hitting errors decided the set.
The third involved some wild swings either way, with the most important a six-pointer served by libero Jen Hannon that made it 20-12 Bulldogs.
Ashlyn Kero's run started off the fourth set well for Houghton, but it turned out to be the last time they put more than two consecutive points together. Inability to consistently control the ball and get it to setters Kenna Farrey and Lexi Pyykkonen in useful positions contributed to the Gremlins' downfall.
"It seemed like we either passsed it to the net or passed to the three-meter," Christianson said.
Mattson isn't the only Bulldog who serves tough and that had a lot to do with Houghton's struggles.
"Our serving strategy is yes, serve tough, however making the serve is key and then we can rely on our defense and transition game which has improved tremendously," Kaminski said.
At the end, Mattson found the gaps and followed Kaminski's direction to "serve to the air," as Mattson put it, which in this case tended to be close to the net.
"We're hanging back there in the boonies, she's serving short and we weren't even getting near the ball," Christianson said.
Manninen's 15 kills led all players. The Bulldogs also got nine from Shannon Anderson and 36 assists and six aces from Nicole Anderson. Sydney Lucier added 20 digs.
For Houghton, Elisa Jurmu had 13 kills, albeit on a high volume of attacks, while Dillinger added seven (despite playing much of the match on a bad ankle) and Kero six.
Five Gremlins had double-digit digs, led by 29 from Dillinger.
Houghton hosts West Iron County Tuesday in its home finale, while Hancock is at Calumet Tuesday night.