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Tournament gauntlet prepared No. 7 Rockford to weather semifinal storms vs. No. 8 Northville

By: Matthew B. Mowery, November 17, 2018, 1:00 am

BATTLE CREEK — Ten days earlier, the Rockford Rams had been one point from being eliminated in the first round of regionals in a sweep.

Now, the No. 7-ranked Rams are three sets from claiming the program’s second state title, after knocking off No. 8 Northville in four sets, 25-13, 19-25, 25-23, 25-21, in Friday’s Division 1 semifinals.

“We got off to a very good start in the first game, and felt like we had a lot of momentum, and Northville fought back. They pass the ball really well, and they did a great job of blocking and touching balls,” Rockford coach Kelly Delacher said. “We really had to dig deep to get that win in the third set, and again in the fourth set. We started down 0-5 in the third set, 1-5 in the fourth set, and had to call an early timeout, and the girls did a great job of responding, battling every point.”

Rockford (47-11-1) will play for the title at 2 p.m. Saturday, facing No. 2 Lake Orion (67-6), the same opponent the Rams played when they won the title in 2011.

No road to the finals is ever easy, but some are more strenuous and pitfall-filled than others.

The gauntlet the Rams have run to date is exactly why they were able to respond every time the Mustangs made a run at them Friday.

“We’re playing very well right now. Obviously you have to be at this point. Really, our road to this point I feel has prepared us well for this. We were down 22-24 in our regional, in the third set, with our tournament on the line, and these girls fought back and got a win, and won the next two sets, and that was a big win against a very good (No. 5) Hudsonville team,” Delacher said. “Then we had another tight win against Grand Haven, had to fight with them. They’re a conference rival. Even going back to districts, we had a five-set win against Lowell after being down 2-1. I feel like us being in those type of matches has really prepared us to play well at this point.”

The Rams players feel the same way.

“I think our season’s got us really prepared,” Emmy Webb said. “In all the games we’ve played with the teams that have challenged us, have forced us to find a sense of urgency in the game.”

That urgency came out after the Mustangs (47-7-1) got over their initial jitters, and started to push back at the Rams.

“You know, absolutely. This is the first time that these girls have been here. It’s hard when you step out in this arena. Rockford’s been here before, they know what it’s like, and next year, when we step on this court, it’s going to be a different story in the first game. I think we pulled it together nicely, came back, had a fire in us, had really great moments. There were just some long streaks in there where I think we let them get that momentum back,” Northville coach Julie Fisette said. “I think we were prepared and ready, but I think as anything, we start three sophomores, and it’s a big game and everyone’s worried. All in all, I’m proud of my team. I think it’s unfortunate that we let some points go there, and we lost that momentum, but we had them in the third game, we had them in the fourth game, and we just let them get right back at us, and beat us up a little bit.”

After the Rams hit .400 as a team in Set 1, Northville it .407 in Set 2, evening everything up at 1-1. The Mustangs carried that momentum over, jumping out to early leads in both the third and the fourth sets.

Each time, though, Rockford responded.

“We’ve done a good job of taking it one point at a time, and not looking at the big picture, the win or the loss, really just staying in the moment, each play. When they make a mistake, they just go back there, and get ready to battle again,” Delacher said. “It really shows they’re playing for each other, and really staying out of their own heads on some of those mistakes. Super proud of how they batted, being down a couple of times, just playing with a lot of composure and poise out there.”

Webb finished with 21 kills, and hit .514 on the match, while Lindsay Taylor had 20 kills and 14 digs. Madelyn Long had 21 digs, and Emilee Karelse had 52 assists.

For the Mustangs, it was a third semifinal loss in seven seasons, but the first for this young group, in Fisette’s third year on the bench there. And they wanted to play on the big stage, badly. Senior libero Hannah Grant played through the pain of stitches in her leg to be able to experience it.

“It was hard because I did have 10 stitches in my knee, but I knew once you get here, it’s a big deal, and I did want to play, and I thought I was capable to play,” Grant said. “I mean, overall, I think we did really good as a team, but we did have a lot of jitters. Overall it was a little shaky, but it was a good ride.”

It could be a springboard to bigger things in the future.

“We have seven seniors we’re going to say goodbye to, but we do start three sophomores, and our JV team went 38-0,” Julie Fisette said. “So coming back, those three sophomores … are going to be stronger than ever, and they’re going to be able to pick those other kids.”

Grant is one of the seven seniors who will say goodbye, as is Fisette’s youngest daughter, Gabi, the team’s setter.

“It was my last time playing for my mom, so that’s a big deal, because I’ve played for her my whole life,” Gabi Fisette said. “But it was cool to see. When I was growing up, it was always in the Novi gym, when she was coaching, so it was cool to see how they felt, and how I saw it, and how other people saw it. I think I got both sides of the story, and that’s really fun.”

Gabi Fisette had 24 assists, Jenna Boksha had 11 kills, and Grant had 22 digs.