HANCOCK — With the Copper Spike on the line Thursday night at Hancock Gym, both the Houghton Gremlins and Hancock Bulldogs volleyball teams made a lot of noise, both on the court and in the stands. When Brynn Arko’s serve hit the floor on the Bulldogs’ side of the net late in the fourth set, the Gremlins stormed the court to celebrate a four-set victory, 24-26, 27-25, 25-23, 26-24 .
Just three weeks ago, the Bulldogs beat the Gremlins on the Houghton court in three sets. Thursday night was a much different scenario, according to Hancock coach Kristan Coleman.
“I can tell you that Houghton stepped it up and played a different game than back then,” she said. “Their defense was outstanding. They got a piece of everything, they downplayed everything, and they didn’t give up.”
Houghton coach Blaire Zenner couldn’t help but smile as she fanned herself trying to cool off after the game. She felt the way her team played against the Bulldogs last weekend during the WestPAC Tournament was something of a great dress rehearsal for Thursday.
“We saw them at the WestPAC tournament and knew they would be a challenge for us. So we had to be mentally ready and focused and know that every point counts, especially against a team like Hancock. They’re gritty, they’re aggressive, they find a way to put that ball on the floor.
“So we knew that on Saturday and that really helped us in trying to find opportunities and ways to play outside of what we normally do, and the same was true today. We found a way to find holes and stay aggressive at the net.”
Led by the aggressive play of both senior middle hitters Danica Riinanen, who had seven kills and five solo blocks, and Sofia Neves, who had nine kills and a team-high 11 blocks, the Gremlins made every game at the net difficult for the Bulldogs.
“I thought we had a lot of blocks in general,” Zener said. “We dug the ball well, read the floor and didn’t let them get as many tips and layups and just points that we usually let them before.”
The first set was tied at 1-1, 2-2, all the way to 12-12 before Hancock’s Reese Driscoll had two aces. The junior had a big hand to help Hancock jump ahead 19-13, but then Houghton fought back, forcing extra points at 24-24.
Hancock junior Brooke Koskela brought in the final point for Hancock with a spin jumper that she confidently put into play and put Houghton back on its heels. While Hancock won the set, the fact that Houghton pushed it to extra points was important for Zenner’s team.
“It was very important to us” she said. “I always tell my team, ‘You have to play point by point. That’s it, one point. That’s all it takes. Someone has to make the mistake. We just can’t let our mistakes outweigh all the points we score and just try to find different ways to score. Staying aggressive but also playing smart is the name of the game for us. Finding ways to be aggressive. I don’t give them easy free points or free balls, but I stay aggressive in the smartest way possible.”
As the game wore on, Houghton would fall behind by a few points, fight their way back, fall behind again by a few points, storm back to take the lead, and so on. Coleman felt that at times during the game, her team struggled with the noise of the gym and it led to situations where communication became difficult, both with each other and with their coach. At the same time, Houghton continued to take big hits on Hancock and instead turned those hits into points for himself.
“We were overtaken,” Coleman said. “I really think they got ahead of us. I can’t say we weren’t in a hurry. We did it. We chased balls but let a lot of balls drop without diving for them and coming out with them. I feel like they gave 110% and we gave 90%. So it was a really good match. Two good teams played today and a fun game to watch, not so much to coach.”
Houghton’s defense was sparked by the efforts of senior libero Clea Ollanketo, who had a game-high 30 digs. Junior setter Laney Johnson was also outstanding for the Gremlins, with 14 digs, 29 assists and four aces.
Zenner liked the effort Johnson put forth throughout the evening as she found ways to be involved in all aspects of the match.
“She was a key component for us,” Zener said. “This is her second year on varsity, so we’re seeing a lot more from her this season and we expect a lot more from her. Back row setup. Attack when he can, from the front. Just making smart plays on the ball, knowing with the pass that she’s getting what kind of set and who she can play, reading the other side as well, and knowing where the setter is, defenders, all that kind of stuff.”
Offensively, Houghton was led by the efforts of Arko, who had seven kills, four aces, nine digs and 11 blocks. Zenner said her senior right fielder has grown into the type of player who can command the Gremlins’ offense in big moments.
“She’s a strong, steady player for us and she’s very smart,” Zener said. “She can see the court, she understands the game very well, and whenever we need something to happen with the ball, she’s a great player to go to because she sees everything and can make plays for us.”
Despite how well the Gremlins played defensively, Koskela led all attackers with 22 kills. She also accumulated 10 digs. Senior middle hitter Brielle Kero had 12 kills, four aces, 13 digs and seven blocks.
CALUMET STANDS FOR BULLDOGS
While her team suffered the loss at home, Coleman felt her team should be able to hold their heads high as they prepare to face Calumet on Tuesday.
“Houghton came out and played a very good game against us today and I give them credit for that,” she said. “I would love to face them again, just because it’s a good fight for us.
“But I think now, going in, we have Calumet on Tuesday and then we go to regionals.”
Coleman said her team will be able to work through any issues in their game before they open the district tournament, and she’s grateful for the opportunity.
“So even though it’s a super tough loss for my players, because of the rivalry we have to come back and break the film down,” she said. “It really showed where our weaknesses were and now we have a week to try and correct that.”
The Bulldogs travel north to face the Copper Kings on Tuesday. The opening is scheduled for 6:30 p.m
The Gremlins have two games left before district play begins. They host West Iron County on Tuesday at 6.30pm and then host Kingsford on Thursday.