HANCOCK — With the Copper Spike on the line Thursday night at the Hancock Gym, both the Houghton Gremlins and the Hancock Bulldogs volleyball teams brought lots of noise, both on the court, and in the stands. When a Brynn Arko serve hit the floor on the Bulldogs’ side of the net at the end of the fourth set, the Gremlins players stormed the court to celebrate a four-set victory, 24-26, 27-25, 25-23, and 26-24.
Just three weeks ago, the Bulldogs defeated the Gremlins on Houghton’s court in three sets. Thursday night was a very different scenario, according to Hancock coach Kristan Coleman.
“I can tell you that Houghton stepped it up and played a way different game than they did back then,” she said. “Their defense was outstanding. They were getting a piece on everything, running everything down, and they didn’t give up.”
Houghton coach Blaire Zenner could not help but smile as she fanned herself, trying to cool down after the match. She felt that the way her team played against the Bulldogs last weekend during the WestPAC Tournament was a great dress rehearsal of sorts for Thursday.
“We saw them at the WestPAC Tournament, and we knew they were going to be a challenge for us. So, we mentally had to be ready and focused, and know that every point matters, especially against a team like Hancock. They’re scrappy, they’re aggressive, they find a way to get that ball on the floor.
“So, we knew that going into Saturday, and it really helped us trying to find opportunities, and ways, to make plays maybe outside of what we normally have been doing, 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 Ryynanen, who had seven kills and five solo blocks, and Sophia Neves, who had nine kills and a team-high 11 blocks, the Gremlins made every play at the net difficult for the Bulldogs.
“I thought, overall, we had a lot of blocks,” Zenner said. “We were digging the ball well, reading the floor, and not letting them get as many tips and rolls, and just points, that we normally have 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 in helping Hancock jump ahead 19-13, but then Houghton fought back, forcing extra points at 24-24.
Hancock junior Brooke Koskela served up the final point for Hancock with a jump spin serve that she confidently put into play and putting Houghton back on its heels. While Hancock won the set, the fact that Houghton pushed it to extra points was important for Zenner’s squad.
“It was very important for us,” she said. “I tell my team always, ‘You have to play one point at a time. That’s it, one point. That’s all it takes.’ Somebody has to make the error. We just can’t let our errors outweigh all of the points that we’re scoring, and just try to find different ways to score, too. Staying aggressive, but also playing smart, that is the name of the game for us. Finding ways to be aggressive. Not giving them easy free points or free balls, but staying aggressive in the smartest way possible.”
As the match wore on, Houghton would fall behind by a couple of points, battle their way back, fall behind again by a couple of points, storm back to take the lead, and so on. Coleman felt that, at times during the match, her team struggled with the noise of the gym, and that led to situations where communication became difficult, both between each other and with their coach. At the same time, Houghton kept grinding out big Hancock hits, and turned those hits into points for themselves instead.
“They outhustled us,” said Coleman. “I really do think they outhustled us. I can’t say we didn’t hustle. We did. We went after balls, but we did let a lot of balls drop without diving for them and going out with them. I kind of feel like they gave 110% and we gave 90%. So it was really a good matchup. It was two good teams playing today, and a fun match to watch, not so much to coach.”
Houghton’s defense was sparked by the efforts of senior libero Clea Ollanketo, who had 30 digs in the match. Junior setter Laney Johnson was also outstanding for the Gremlins, with 14 digs, 29 assists, and four aces.
Zenner loved the effort Johnson gave throughout the night, as she found ways to chip-in in all aspects of the match.
“She’s been a key component for us,” said Zenner. “This is her second year on varsity, so we’re seeing a lot more out of her this season, and expecting a lot more out of her, too. Setting from the back row. Attacking when she can in the front. Just making smart plays on the ball, knowing with the pass she gets what kind of set, and who she can set, reading the other side, too, 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 that her senior right side hitter has grown into the type of player who can drive the Gremlins’ offense in big moments.
“She’s a strong, solid player for us, and she’s very smart,” Zenner said. “She can see the court, she understands the game really well, and whenever we need something to happen with the ball, she’s a great player to go to, because she does see everything, and can make the plays for us.”
Despite how well the Gremlins played defensively, Koskela led all hitters with 22 kills. She also racked up 10 digs. Senior middle hitter Brielle Kero had 12 kills, four aces, 13 digs, and seven blocks.
CALUMET LOOMS FOR BULLDOGS
While her team took the loss at home, Coleman felt that her team should be able to hold their heads high as they get ready to face Calumet on Tuesday.
“Houghton came out and played a very good game today against us, and I give them credit for that,” she said. “I’d love to match up with them again, just because it’s a good battle for us.
“But, I think now, going in, we have Calumet on Tuesday, and then we go into districts.”
Coleman said that her team will be able to address any issues in their game before they open the district tournament, and she is thankful for that opportunity.
“So, although this is a super tough loss for my players, because of the rivalry, we get to go back and break down film,” she said. “This truly showed where our weaknesses are at, and now we’ve got a week to try and correct that.”
The Bulldogs travel north to face the Copper Kings on Tuesday. Opening serve is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
The Gremlins have two more matches left before districts begin. They host West Iron County on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. and then host Kingsford on Thursday.