Houghton hopes 4th time is the charm against Calumet

Houghton’s Kendra Monette connects versus Hancock on Oct. 19. in Hancock. (Bryce Derouin/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — When the MHSAA released the enrollments classifications of each school for the 2017-18 season, the biggest local change was the Houghton Gremlins moving from Class B to Class C. This meant the traditional volleyball powers of Houghton and the Calumet Copper Kings would be renewing their postseason rivalry.

Tonight’s district semifinal in Calumet at 7 p.m. will be the first postseason matchup between the two rivals since 2012, which resulted in a Calumet sweep. The teams won’t be competing for a trophy, but barring a major upset, the winner will be heavily favored to claim a regional championship and earn the distinction as the best team in the U.P.

“For so long it was Houghton and Calumet and you knew they’d play somewhere for the district,” Houghton head coach John Christianson said. “Whoever won the district would have a really good chance to go to the state quarterfinal or farther. So in a weird way for me, it’s like going back (in time).”

The seniors at Houghton and Calumet were in eighth grade the last time the two schools faced each other in the postseason. The competitive rivals usually have a playoff-like atmosphere whenever they face each other, so the intensity of tonight’s matchup will be nothing new.

“It’s nerve-racking but it’s exciting as well,” Houghton senior Kendra Monette said. “We just want to come out strong and see what we can do.”

After three meetings, the Gremlins know they can play with a Calumet team that has yet to lose a best of five match this season. But defeating the Copper Kings has been the hurdle they have yet to get over this year.

Calumet won in five sets at home in the first meeting of the season (23-25, 25-19, 25-19, 20-25, 15-11), captured the Houghton Invite over the Gremlins in a best of three match (26-28, 25-23, 15-5) and edged Houghton in the fifth set to win the West-PAC championship (25-18, 19-25, 20-25, 25-15, 15-13).

The final match was tied at 13 before the Copper Kings scored the next two points to hand the Gremlins a heartbreaking defeat.

“It was very frustrating,” Monette said of the losses. “There’s not really any words to describe how devastating it was to come up that short and be so close.

“But I feel like we’re a lot more confident in ourselves than we were before. And I feel that since we lost to them three times, it makes us want to beat them even more, come out stronger and have more enthusiasm and energy.”

If Houghton wins, it will break Calumet’s five-year run of consecutive district and regional championships. The Gremlins were the last team to end Calumet’s season in the district round with a five-set win in 2011.

So what will it take for the fourth time to be the charm?

“Mentally, we have to be a little bit tougher down the stretch,” Christianson said. “But it always comes down to the first contact. We have to serve tough and pass their serve… Whoever makes the best first contact will control the tempo and be the team that is swinging. The team that swings, wins.

“If all we’re doing is pushing the ball back and letting (Calumet) swing and swing, those are the sets (Calumet) will win. When we get them out of rhythm and they have to push it back and we get to swing, those are the sets we win.”

When Calumet is able to swing, its go-to option is senior Lea Bjorn, who was named the West-PAC Player of the Year and who Christianson believes is the best player in the U.P. Bjorn has already had stellar moments against the Gremlins this season, setting a school record for kills in a match with 28 in the first game against the Gremlins this season. In the Houghton Invite during the second set with the score tied at 23, Bjorn tallied two kills for the victory and gave her team the momentum to win the third set in a blowout, 15-5. And in the five-set thriller in Houghton, Bjorn attacked the middle of the Gremlins’ defense for the match-deciding point and a 15-13 win in the fifth.

“Lea is super versatile,” said Houghton senior libero Madi Dillinger, who had 76 digs combined in the two five-set matches against Calumet. “The first time we played she hit line a lot. We had to make that adjustment, but their coach trained her to hit on the other side of the block, now, so now it’s just trying to figure out where she’s going to go (tonight).

“Both her and (Celia Kiilunen) are very versatile and make it difficult when they can hit either way whenever they want.”

The winner will host the victor of the semifinal between Hancock and Chassell.