HOUGHTON - Where there once was room for two, now three Copper Country teams have found their way into the regional tournament tonight.
Houghton (Class B), Calumet (Class C) and Lake Linden-Hubbell (Class D) are just part of a Copper Country circuit that, while grinding, has sharpened their teams in postseason play.
"There's no doubt about it. Playing the Calumets, the Hancocks, the Lake Lindens, playing those kinds of teams just makes all of us better. Hopefully, it'll pay off with a whole bunch of regional victories," Houghton coach John Christianson said.
Calumet’s Terilynne Budreau and Houghton’s Sydney Dillinger joust at the net during the final of the Gremlin Invitational Oct. 19. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
The Gremlins made the longest trip to tonight's match, at Gaylord High School, where they'll face defending regional champ Cadillac.
Still, Christianson is happy with the way his team handled itself in the non-traditional district bracket, in which the Gremlins faced trips to Gladstone and Menominee.
"I thought we really played really hard and with a lot of heart. There were times in both matches where things could have slipped away and were slipping away and I was just really happy with the way they stepped up and turned things around," Christianson said.
Houghton hasn't seen Cadillac, but it knows the Vikings will be strong. Cadillac is ranked No. 7 in the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association Class B poll, has won eight consecutive district titles and lost in five sets in the state quarterfinals last year.
Still, the Gremlins hadn't seen Menominee before beating them and they tested themselves against unfamiliar opponents earlier in the season at a tournament in Oshkosh, Wis., which included eventual Wisconsin Division 3 runner-up Racine St. Catherine's.
Christianson said he expects the Vikings to be fundamentally sound, play at a high tempo and use their hitters in a variety of ways.
"We saw fast, and that's probably the biggest thing we need to be aware of," he said.
The Gremlins, if they pull the upset, would stay in Gaylord to play Grant or Ludington in the regional final Thursday night.
The shortest trip tonight belongs to Lake Linden-Hubbell. Unlike the Gremlins, they know exactly who they're playing: Forest Park and senior juggernaut Lexi Gussert.
The Lakes and Lady Trojans have met in the regional tournament all three years of Gussert's career and FP has won all three times.
Still, LL-H coach Karen Keranen has visual evidence leading to a belief that this year will be different.
"This team is not coming in timid. We're coming in with some confidence," she said.
When they've been up, the Lakes have proven to be competitive with anyone. They beat Houghton twice and were the only U.P. team to take a set off Calumet all season.
The Lakes bounced Baraga and Ontonagon to win their fourth straight district title, and Keranen was very happy with the way they played.
"Basically, we're making fewer mistakes. When that happens, you're not giving away points. You gain confidence and momentum," Keranen said.
As for Gussert, trying to minimize her impact on the game from the front row will be influenced by how well the Lakes can control the game from their back row.
"We've got to be sharp on our serve receive so we get can offense to keep her out of front row for any long duration," Keranen said.
The winner of the first semifinal at Negaunee's Lakeview Gym Tuesday will face Munising or Stephenson in the regional final Thursday.
In Class C, Calumet goes down to Gladstone in an attempt to extend a regional championship streak for the Copper Country that includes all six tournaments held in the fall.
"We don't go into the match expecting to win, but we certainly set the bar high. We have high expectations of our team and want to perform well. We know every set starts at 0-0 so we have to be ready to play," Calumet coach Lisa Twardzik said.
The Kings' assignment in Tuesday's semifinal is former WestPAC opponent Ironwood, which knocked off West Iron County and Iron Mountain to win the 'Central time' district last week.
Calumet, meanwhile, defeated Chassell and Hancock for a third consecutive district crown.
Twardzik said the Copper Kings are working on improving defensively. If they can, Calumet can create even better opportunities for its wide array of hitters.
"I've been quite pleased with our kill efficiency from many of our players all season long. If someone is not having her best game there are others who are willing to step up. It's nice to have so many weapons across the net," she said.
If Calumet can take down the Red Devils, Gwinn or St. Ignace awaits in the regional final.