By John Vrancic
Special to the Record-Eagle
MANISTIQUE — It took nearly the entire first set for Traverse City St. Francis to get warmed up in Tuesday's Class C state quarterfinal volleyball match.
Once the Gladiators accomplished that, they seemed nearly unstoppable as they rallied past the Calumet Copper Kings 3-1 (22-25, 25-13, 25-18, 25-13).
The victory sends the Gladiators to the state semifinals for the first time to face Unionville-Sebewaing Thursday at 3:45 p.m. in Battle Creek.
"This is huge, not only for us but for our school and community," said Heather Simpson, who shares the St. Francis coaching duties with Rita Jones, "We're excited to be taking another road trip, and the people are excited for us. The girls deserve this."
St. Francis, making its first quarterfinal appearance since 1997, trailed by as much as 24-17 in the first set before trimming the deficit to 24-22.
But sophomore Alexis Rowe then recorded a kill to secure the opener for the Copper Kings.
"I think we had little bit of jitters in the first set," said St. Francis senior middle hitter/blocker Bridget Bussell, who finished with 17 kills, three blocks, four service aces and 20 digs. "Then, we came back and that seemed to set the tone. It's an unbelievable feeling to be the first ones from our school to be going to the semifinals."
Bussell helped the Gladiators start quickly in the second set, getting a pair of kills during freshman Madeline Rysztak's five-point service run for a 6-0 advantage.
Rysztak then added a four-point run in the third to put St. Francis up 5-0.
"Madeline is just consistent," said Jones. "She works hard and gets to the ball. We also have a team full of girls with great attitudes, which helps her."
In the fourth set, St. Francis quickly gained a 10-3 cushion, with Bussell getting three kills during that span.
A hitting and a blocking error enabled Calumet to trim the deficit to 10-5 before the Gladiators again took charge.
Calumet then fell behind by as much as 21-11 before a last-gasp effort pulled them within 21-15.
A serving error, however, ended any hopes of the Copper Kings completing their comeback as Bussell then hit the final three points, including a match-clinching ace.
"Calumet played well in the first set," said Simpson. "But our kids didn't panic and found a way to get it done."
The Gladiators also benefitted from a scrimmage on Sunday with Leland, which fell to Battle Creek St. Phillip 3-0 in a Class D quarterfinal Tuesday.
"That kind of prepared us, although we didn't have our best warm-up," said Jones. "Calumet has a good team. But once we got our ducks in a row, we were on our way. Once our girls get going, they're hard to stop."
St. Francis junior Megan Seida ended with seven aces and 11 digs. Rysztak added five aces, 10 kills and 11 digs. Sophomore Sophie Spencer had two aces, three kills and two blocks and senior Kaitlyn Hegewald collected 37 assists and seven digs.
"It all came down to serve receives, and the jump serves by No. 8 (Rysztak) were real difficult to control," said Calumet coach Lisa Twardzik. "I thought our girls came out strong in the first set. We ran a strong attack and were able to put the ball away. After the first set, we were having a difficult time getting a block on Bridget (Bussell) and their outside hitters gave us some problems."
Ellen Twardzik paced Calumet with three aces, nine kills and two blocks despite often being double-teamed.
"We noticed she really liked the left corner," said Jones. "When we doubled up on her, we were able to take that away."
Calumet's sophomore middle hitter, however, suffered an ankle injury late in the final set and was unable to finish the match.
"I felt bad about her injury," said Bussell. "She played real well for them."
Calumet sophmore outside hitter Alexis Rowe also had nine kills and senior outside hitter Kristy Lasanen had eight.