“We’re going downstate!” The Lady Trojans celebrate after scoring the winning point against Pellston.
CRYSTAL FALLS—As the webcast of Forest Park’s 3-0 loss to Battle Creek St. Philip in the state Class D volleyball semifinals ended, the announcer summed it up pretty well:
“Don’t hang your head,” he said. “36-1-4 on the season, and your only loss comes in the Class D semifinals to a team that’s won the championship six of the last seven times.”
Make that seven of the last eight: St. Philip rolled over Wyoming Tri-Unity Christian 3-0 in the championship match Nov. 19. Two days earlier, on Nov. 17, they ended the Lady Trojans’ season in a 3-0 semifinal match. The scores were 25-22, 25-12, 25-14.
Really, nothing that could have happened in Battle Creek would have topped the exhilaration the Lady Trojans felt Nov. 15 when they knocked off Pellston 3-1 in a quarterfinal match played in Manistique. The scores were 21-25, 25-15, 25-13 and 25-20.
Pellston ended the Trojans’ season in 2008 and 2010, also at the quarters. To a girl, the Lady Trojans said they had been preparing themselves for a rematch ever since last year’s loss.
“We not only talked the talk—we walked the walk tonight,” Coach Kim Bjork said in the post-match jubilation. “We talked all season that that’s where we’re going, and that’s what we want to do.
“I’m glad the girls stepped it up and played awesome. Sweet revenge!”
But the Hornets threatened to blow the Lady Trojans out early in the first set. Especially Tayler Friend, their senior outside hitter, who was on early. Logan Klienhenz, Pellston’s first server, fired in six points, four on Friend’s kills, for a 7-1 Pellston lead. After Klienhenz fired an ace in the middle of the floor, Trojans Coach Kim Bjork called time
Pellston built up a 14-6 lead before Mindy DeNell won three on serve, off Lexi Gussert’s block and two wide Pellston hits. While FP played much better after the shaky start, no other Trojan server could get much traction, and the Hornets won 25-21—the first set FP had lost after five shutout matches in postseason play.
The second set was a different story: close and hard-fought nearly all the way. Pellston led on an early double, but the Lady Trojans stayed close until Tanner Bartczak struck for three points and a 9-7 lead. Pellston caught up and edged ahead before Audrey Sholander served two. Pellston tied it at 15-all.
That’s when DeNell turned the set and the match around. She fired in nine consecutive points, mainly on Hornet attack errors. Bartczak fired a kill that hit Pellston’s back line, and a hit into the net wrapped up FP’s 25-15 win, tying the match at 1-1.
Momentum was swiftly shifting to the Lady Trojans. “Once the girls knew they could play with this team,” Bjork said, “they just all clicked and stayed positive the whole way. And that’s a big thing with volleyball.”
Again, neither side broke out to a big lead early in the third set. Again, DeNell changed that, serving four for a 10-6 Forest Park lead.
This time, teammates kept up the pressure: Bartczak scored three, Gina Graff had one, and Kristin Shamion and Gussert added two each for a 22-10 lead. Ana Cornelia’s kill got the serve back to DeNell, who finished it with an ace. Forest Park now led 2-1—one to go.
After Pellston opened the fourth set with a double, Graff fired back with five straight. Gussert blocked Friend for a big point, but the Hornets rallied to tie 9-9.
The Lady Trojans led 17-16 when Gussert came up and struck for three—21-16. They edged closer to 25, battling hard for each point and trying to keep their emotions in check.
When Pellston couldn’t handle Gussert’s shot with Bartczak serving, they finally could let it loose. Tears, jumping for joy, hugs, more tears, shrieks.
“This is what we have been working for all year … Awesome! … This was our one big goal—to beat Pellston … Tears of joy! … I knew we could do it … I’m so proud of my team! … We came back, and we played phenomenal!”
Coach Bjork: “Our blockers really played well: Tanner and Lex—their assignment was to stop No. 10 [Friend], and they did a great job.”
The stat sheet: Gussert, 11 kills, four blocks, four assists, 11 digs, two aces; Bartczak, 15 kills, four digs; Sholander, 10 kills, five digs; Shamion, 27 assists, two blocks, two digs; DeNell, two aces, six digs; Cornelia, three kills, six digs; Graff, seven digs.
Their reward: facing Michigan’s Class D volleyball juggernaut. Battle Creek St. Philip, 500 miles from home. St. Philip, playing a half mile from its school campus, had won six of the last seven state titles including the last five in a row. Could the Lady Trojans stand up to them?
They did in the first set. The Tigers led early, but Forest Park fought back to take a 16-12 lead on consecutive three-point turns by Graff and Shamion. St. Philip fought back on two from Amanda McKinzie and three by Samantha Ellis for a 19-18 lead, and the Tigers stayed ahead after that for a 25-22 win.
That was close. The second set wasn’t. Forest Park couldn’t win points on serve, while St. Philip zoomed away to an eight-point lead. The Lady Trojans never got closer than five after that, and the Tigers’ 25-12 win put them up 2-0.
The Lady Trojans’ tank was nearly empty, but they fought hard in the third set. Two-point spells by Cornelia and Gussert built up a 7-3 lead, and St. Philip didn’t win a single point on serve in its entire first rotation. Singles by Bartczak and Shamion built up a 14-11 Trojan lead when McKinzie took serve.
That’s when the needle hit “E,” as McKinzie served in 14 consecutive points to end the match. She had six aces in that spell, and FP errors compounded their problems. Coach Bjork burned both her time-outs in hopes of turning the tide, but McKinzie’s marathon spell washed the Trojans out of the tournament.
“St. Phil has a great team,” Coach Bjork said later. “They have some very good attackers, and I think their experience took over.” She cited unforced errors and the Tigers’ long scoring runs. “You can’t get down when you play a team like that.”
Forest Park stats: Gussert, 10 kills, three blocks, two digs; Bartczak, four kills, seven digs; Graff, six digs; Sholander, four kills, five digs; Shamion, 15 assists, two digs.
“I am proud of our girls and what they accomplished this year,” Coach Bjork said. “They played some great volleyball this year, and all these girls will take away great memories from this trip.”
The trip to the semifinals ends the careers of Lady Trojan seniors Bartczak, Sholander, Shamion and Cornelia. All were starters on a Lady Trojan squad that lost just once all season—at the semifinals.
“This group of four seniors will always hold a special place in my heart,” said the coach. “They are great kids, and they will be missed.”