Kariniemi, Wickstrom provide stability in the middle of Calumet’s defense

Calumet’s Brooke Kariniemi, left, and Lea Bjorn, right, leap to block Houghton Lake’s Sarah Barnes, Tuesday, in Munising during a Class C state quarterfinal. (Bryce Derouin/Daily Mining Gazette)

MUNISING — In volleyball, there is one moment for a blocker that is better than all the rest. It starts by reading the pass and getting ready for the set. Then, when the set is at its peak, a good blocker begins her footwork and rises up to contest the spike, anticipating where it will be played before contact is even made. 

If the execution is perfect, what follows is pure volleyball bliss.  

“When you feel yourself block the other team’s hitter, it is probably one of the best feelings there is in volleyball because you know you just crushed it,” junior Calumet middle blocker Sydney Wickstrom said. 

Fellow middle blocker Brooke Kariniemi experienced that feeling often in Calumet’s three-set quarterfinal victory (25-12, 25-23, 25-23) over the Houghton Lake Bobcats in Munising. Her team-high eight blocks impacted the Houghton Lake hitters, forcing them to change their approach. 

“That helps us a ton because when you can get a block on the other team’s hitters, it gets into their heads a little bit,” Calumet coach Matt Laho said. “They start delaying their swings or trying to change stuff to get around the block and it knocks them out of sync.

“Any hitter, when the other team is blocking you, and they have a presence at the net, it really does just mentally get in your head and make you try to adjust. Even if you aren’t trying to think about it, it is always there.”

Calumet cruised to a 25-12 victory in the first set, and as the second set began, Kariniemi made her presence known. The senior had back-to-back blocks followed by a crafty tip-over to give the Copper Kings the first point of the set. 

Not only does an effective block in the middle stop the opposing team from scoring, it can also create offensive success. 

“It is important to have a good block, even to get your team more touches, because it puts the ball up and gives you more time to get under it,” Kariniemi said. “Middle hitters are hard to read, so it makes it easier if you put a block on it because it redirects the ball.”

Wickstrom and Kariniemi have been a force for Calumet in the playoffs, but that wasn’t always the case this season. Several disappointing performances left the middle blockers dejected, but it wasn’t until after a particularly frustrating match against Houghton that they talked things out with Laho and decided to make some changes. They went back to the basics and began focusing on their footwork. 

Now they approach drills in practice with extra care and determination. The middle blockers are particularly fond of a drill they call “ball setter, ball hitter.” The purpose of the drill is to train the blockers to anticipate where the ball is going, which in turn helps with timing. 

“They’ve been grinding it out in practice every day, putting in extra reps and it has turned it on for them,” Laho said. “I gave them the tools and they were able to go out there and use them. I’m super pumped for them and it makes me proud to see them go out and execute the way that they do.”