BATTLE CREEK — This is only the beginning, not the end.
All Traverse City St. Francis needed to do was look across the court.
The young Gladiators dropped a 24-26, 25-16, 23-25, 20-25 in Saturday’s Division 3 volleyball state championship match against an experienced Kalamazoo Christian at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.
In fact, No. 4-ranked Kalamazoo Christian (43-6-3) experienced last year exactly what No. 5 Traverse City St Francis (38-10-1) did a year ago.
This year’s Comets team featured six seniors who were on last season’s team that lost in four sets to Pewamo-Westphalia in the D3 title game.
“It shows that we can,” TCSF junior libero Avery Nance said. “This is the first time we’ve been in this state finals since 2012. It’s really awesome, and I’m really proud of us for making it this far. Obviously, we wanted first, but making it this far shows to everybody that it is doable and it’s not just some crazy dream to make it to the state finals.”
The sophomore-heavy Gladiators started only two upperclassmen — senior outside hitter Garnet Mullet and Nance — with the rest all sophomores. The Gladiators’ top three reserves are juniors, giving them plenty of returning firepower to finish the job next season the way Kalamazoo Christian did Saturday evening.
Comets second-year head coach Carlie Southland said St. Francis is poised to replicate the Comets’ feat next season. Kalamazoo Christian graduates six seniors, including four starters and its top two backup rotational players.
“They put up a good fight,” the 24-year-old coach said. “I don’t know if we were necessarily ready for it. We had to put in a lot of fight to win this game today. They did a very good job at getting us out of our system. I’m sure they’ll have the same fight to make it back next year like we did.”
Kalamazoo Christian, located only 34 miles away from Kellogg Arena, loses senior hitters Holland DeVries (16 kills, 27 digs) and Makenna Ekkens (17 kills, 14 digs), middle Mackenzie Ash (four blocks, two kills) and setter Lola Stecker (39 assists, 11 digs) among that senior group.
“We just came back so motivated this year,” Southland said. “We had it as one of our goals to not just make it back to the state finals, but to win the state finals. We had such a big group of seniors this year, so it meant a lot to them to be able to do that.”
It was SF’s first state finals appearance since 2012 when Rita Jones and Heather Simpson coached the Gladiators. This year, Jones’ sophomore daughter, Reese, was one of TCSF’s two setters and one of nine rotational players returning next season.
“I hope they take from this — that hunger and drive to come back — and recreate this and take it next year,” TCSF fifth-year head coach Kathleen Nance said.
Kalamazoo Christian won the first set 26-24 after taking its first lead at 25-24 on a play where the referees had to confer to decide whether an SF blocker touched DeVries’ spike that sailed long. TCSF looked in control early on, building a 13-3 lead, with five aces keeping the Comets off balance and out of system.
The Gladiators led 6-0 early in the second set and largely cruised to a 25-16 win to even the match on Quinn Yenshaw’s kill through the Comets’ block. The second set lasted only 16:25, compared to the first’s 26:24.
“We started off so strong and made a huge lead in the first set, and they just fought back hard,” Coach Nance said. “Then taking the second set gave us a little boost of confidence and probably rattled them a little bit. But they’re a great team, and they’re very experienced and a bit older than we are — and they just played a heck of a game.”
Kalamazoo won a back-and-forth third set that saw 23 ties or lead changes and lasted 25:23. The Glads led 22-21 on a Yenshaw ace before the Comets scored four of the last five points.
The fourth set also featured 23 ties or lead changes, with the Comets taking a 25-20 win after TCSF led 16-15 on a Garnet Mullet kill. DeVries’ kill off St. Francis’ block clinched the Comets title.
“Even when they were down, they really just continued with their fight,” Coach Nance said. “There was no time that the team was like, ‘We’re done.’”
Mullet and Yenshaw paced the Glads in kills with 15 each. Sophomores Claire Hurley, Reese Muma and Harper Nausadis added eight, five and three, respectively. They also combined four blocks.
St. Francis beat three top-10 teams and an honorable mention on the way to the championship match.
“We really thought we were going to make our comeback that we usually do,” said Avery Nance, who finished with 25 digs and six assists. “We’ve done that in all of our playoff games. We usually take a set, unfortunately, to warm up and see what the other team is doing. But we thought we were figuring that out; but unfortunately, they adjusted really well to what we were doing.”
Mullet has college volleyball to look forward to, playing for Clarkston University in upstate New York next season. She said she plans to keep a close eye on the Gladiators next year from afar.
“This team, they’ve become my family, and I’m going to keep up on every game that I can even though I’m nine-and-a-half hours away,” Mullet said. “They’re still going to be near and dear to me.”
Kalamazoo Christian upset No. 1-ranked Monroe St. Mary — the team that beat St. Francis in the 2012 Class C finals — in this year’s semifinals in straight sets.
Reese Jones pitched in 24 assists and 19 digs, Tessah Konas added 15 assists, three aces and four digs, and Mullet served up five aces and had 18 digs. Yenshaw added 19 digs.
St. Francis racked up 15 aces to Kalamazoo’s four.
Kalamazoo Christian and Southland produced an 81-12-6 record over the last two seasons. Kathleen Nance is 141-68-7 in five seasons at St. Francis.
Mullet, the lone senior starter, said she hopes her younger teammates keep the momentum from this season and finish the job next year.
“To know that we started something, that’s truly amazing,” Mullet said. “We haven’t been here in 11 years, so to be able to start that — and hopefully they’ll continue it — that’s just amazing.”
BATTLE CREEK — This is only the beginning, not the end.