GLADSTONE - Over the years, Houghton volleyball teams have generally been successful in the Gladstone High School gym.
That has especially held true since 2010, with the Gremlins winning the "Rock" Invitational four times in a row.
Houghton added an even more important victory in its Class B district opener at Gladstone Wednesday night, eliminating the Braves 3-1 (23-25, 25-17, 25-23, 25-21).
"Things were exciting all night," said Houghton coach John Christianson. "Gladstone has a real nice team. We knew they would give us a tough match. Liz (coach Gendron) always prepares her teams well. We're very pleased to be moving on."
The triumph sends the Gremlins to Menominee, where they'll try to secure their first Class B district title in a match set for Friday at 7 p.m.
Menominee advanced Wednesday in a 3-0 conquest of Escanaba.
The Braves trailed 24-18 following a serving error in the fourth set, then pulled within 24-21 on a kill by junior Lexi Hongisto. Gladstone's season, however, ended on a hitting error moments later.
"Well, we knew coming in we had to lessen the errors," said Gendron. "We made too many mistakes and Houghton fully took advantage of every one of them. We started off with the correct game plan, but faltered from it in the second set. We started to get back into it in the third. Only, we couldn't pull it out."
Houghton gained an 8-3 lead in the finale, forcing Gladstone to use a time-out.
The Braves responded with an 8-3 run of their own, tying the count at 11 on a Gremlins' hitting miscue.
Gladstone was still within 15-14 following senior Mackenzie Pardonnet's kill for a sideout, but was unable to gain the upper hand.
In the third set, Houghton appeared to be cruising along when it gained a 20-10 advantage on a hitting error.
That's also when the Braves began to whittle away at their deficit, eventually climbing within 22-21 on a kill by Hongisto.
Houghton then got a sideout and gained a 24-21 cushion on a block by junior Sydney Dillinger.
The Braves weren't quite through yet as they climbed within 24-23 before a serving error ended their chances.
"Man, did they ever make a run at us," said Christianson. "Some of our kids were real nervous passing the ball. We kind of lucked out with them missing that last serve. We jumped on them in the fourth set, but they pushed back so hard. They found the holes in our defense. Fortunately, our kids came up with some big hustle plays in the end."
Gladstone trailed 19-14 in the opener, but a sideout and five-point service run by senior Summer Demeuse enabled the Braves to gain a 20-19 lead.
Houghton regained the lead (21-20) on a kill by Dillinger. After the teams traded a few points, Hongisto snapped a 23-23 deadlock by powering the ball past a double block and providing a block of her own for the set-winner.
In the second set, Houghton was clinging to a 17-15 lead after a hitting error. The Gremlins then broke away on a 6-1 run for an insurmountable 23-16 advantage.
Gladstone made it 23-17 on a kill by senior Jessica Beaudry before Houghton scored the last two points of that set.
"Beaudry is a great outside hitter," said Christianson. "I thought our block timing improved through the night and our defense got stronger. In the end, we did a better job reading their hitters."
Dillinger finished with 10 kills, four blocks, three service aces and 10 digs. Senior Elisa Jurmu added eight kills and a block. Senior Kenna Farrey collected 16 assists and classmate Lexi Pyykkonen added 14 in the Gremlins' 5-2 offense. Junior Miranda Hillstrom recorded 14 digs and senior Annika Wheeler had 11.
Wheeler also had a six-point service run, including an ace for a 16-7 cushion in the third set.
"Syd (Dillinger) came up real big in all phases of the game," said Christianson. "Annika had a nice service run in the third set and we needed every one of her points."
Hongisto led the Braves with 16 kills, three aces, an assist and 13 digs. Beaudry added 15 kills, three blocks, four aces and 13 digs. Senior setter Callie Jensen contributed 37 assists and 17 digs. Pardonnet recorded seven kills and Summer Demeuse had 14 digs.
"Mackenzie had an outstanding district tournament run," said Gendron. "She and Callie really started clicking. I should have called her number a few more times. Jessica and Lexi were hitting hard and serving strong, and Summer had some awesome digs and Callie ran a smooth offense. These girls played very hard. They came back from some large deficits."