Braves spike cancer, Eskymos in 3-0 win

GLADSTONE – Once a year in the month of October an event centered around a volleyball match overshadows the game itself. It was that night, Tuesday as the Gladstone Braves and Escanaba Eskymos hosted and participated in the annual “Spike Out Breast Cancer” game.

The two teams sold merchandise, t-shirts and donated their game jersey’s in a silent auction to raise money for those affected by breast cancer. The event has grown each year since its beginning and Tuesday night’s was the biggest and most well-run yet. The Braves’ gym was decked out in pink, with a banner wrapping around the rafters, streamers in the entry ways, a pink volleyball and the athletes in pink jersey’s with pink ribbons and pads. The fans in the stands were also decked out in pink t-shirts that were available for sale.

The money raised was given to the family of Braves’ junior Katie Belonga, who lost her mother to cancer in 2010. The tearful announcement was given by Belonga, with her teammates by her side, postgame.

“It was a great night for volley for a cause,” said Eskymos coach Teresa Heidt. “We both sold (gym) bags and participated in the silent auction for the t-shirts. Everyone was involved. They all knew who the money was donated to, so it was a big deal. Liz put a lot of hard work into this and I’m glad we could be a part of it.”

It was an emotional night, as many of the girls on the court were playing for someone they knew that had been affected by the disease. Names of those who have had cancer were on the backs of the players’ jersey’s.

When it came to game-time however, the Braves were all business, rolling to a 3-0 (25-14, 25-23, 25-19) sweep of Escanaba, also sweeping the season series.

“Tonight we were focused. We wanted to do it in three, that was our plan,” said Braves coach Liz Gendron, who attributed much of the victory to improved play from Gladstone’s middle hitters. “We wanted to get more transitions to them and get them involved because we’ll need them come district time,” Gendron continued. “It’s a timing thing and our setters really have had to practice with our middles. They spend extra time after school, after practice doing that, and their timing was good today.”

The Braves’ outside hitters were hitting the ball hard as well. Jess Beaudry attributed Gladstone’s recent hot streak to libero Summer Demeuse.

“We’re just coming together pretty well, we’re talking a lot more and with Summer at libero running our defense, we’re really gelling as a team now. It’s been nice,” she said.

Beaudry said she was playing for her aunt who lives in Pittsburgh and recently fought cancer.

The Eskymos came out cold and couldn’t jump start their offense in the first set. They then fell behind 6-0 to start the second set after a strong run from Callie Jensen. Esky fought back and tied the set at 12-12 but communication issues came into play and the Braves came back with a 7-2 run.

Heidt took a time out at game point in each set. It seemed to work, as Esky staved off defeat for a while. Down 24-17, the Eskymos scored six straight points after the time out in the second set, but Gladstone secured the victory after an Eskymo hitting error.

“We lost our momentum right off the get-go, and our ability to pass the ball,” said Heidt. “Once you can’t pass the ball, you can’t get a set and you can’t get a kill. Gladstone is always a nerve-wracking match and we came in already down tonight. We just have to break out of it.”

The Eskymos were without a prolonged run of four or more points throughout the night whereas the Braves had seven such runs. They were also calling shots all night long and avoided some of the mistakes being made on the other side of the net.

“When No. 8 (Kenly Milam) goes in to serve, she may only go out for that one rotation, but you can tell when she goes out on the floor the communication is just at a new volume,” said Gendron. “I Want to give a shout out to Kenly. I Wish I could take her enthusiasm and spread it to the whole group.”

Gladstone improved to 4-4 in the Great Northern Conference and will play at the Houghton Invitational, Saturday before wrapping up the season at Marquette and Negaunee, and hosting Kingsford.

“I’m sure Kingsford will be coming for us after we beat them in the (Esky Elks) tournament,” said Gendron. “Kingsford is one that we should have won (in a dual meet, Oct. 10), and we need to retaliate because we’ll see them in districts. We need to focus and be spot on.”

The Eskymos host Kingsford on Tuesday before finishing the regular season by hosting Marquette and traveling to Stephenson.