Class D volleyball: State Semifinal: Deja Vu as Trojans fall to St. Phillip again

BATTLE CREEK – The stage was set, the main characters remained the same, and the starring actresses were nearly the same as in 2011. Unfortunately for the Forest Park volleyball team, the result was the same, as the Trojans fell in straight sets, 25-15, 25-22, and 25-17 to seven-time defending state champions Battle Creek St. Philip on Thursday at Kellogg Arena in the Fighting Tigers’ hometown.

The defeat ends another stellar campaign for the Trojans at 31-2-5. But they did not go quietly into the southern Michigan night.

After a first set loss in which the Trojans committed eight errors, Forest Park fought back from a 7-2 deficit in the second set to make some amazing things happen.

Two St. Philip hitting errors and an ace by Lexi Gussert put the second set score to 8-7 in favor of the Fighting Tigers. Two more aces by Gussert put Forest Park ahead by one at 9-8, sending the Trojans fans who had traveled over 500 miles into a legitimate frenzy.

Gussert led the Lady Trojans with 16 kills.

“I think in the first set, we were nervous,” Gussert said. “We got in the huddle and said, ‘Once we get the passes up, we can play with them.'”

Another ace by Gussert at 11-8 and a kill by Libby Shamion at 13-8 kept the Trojans ahead by four. St. Philip responded, with kills by Emily Freybler at 13-9 and Abby McKinzie at 14-10. A Trojans hitting error at 14-11, four hits at 14-12, and two more hitting errors put the Fighting Tigers ahead at 15-14.

A kill by Gussert tied the match at 16-16 and a hitting error on the Tigers put Forest Park ahead at 18-17. It was all Tigers from there.

St. Philip’s Sierra Hubbard-Neil, who is committed to play at Western Michigan, smashed two of her match-best 21 kills to put the Tigers up 20-19. Stephanie Gusching added a kill to force a Trojans timeout at 21-19.

Another Freybler kill for the Tigers at 22-20 and a hitting error by Gussert on game point sealed the set for St. Philip.

“We played with them and I’m proud of the team for that,” said Gussert.

Forest Park hung tough in set three, only trailing 13-9, but a Gusching ace forced a subsequent timeout. Hubbard-Neil, Freybler, and McKinzie all added kills in the final set. An ace by Megan Parker for St. Philip at 22-16 and two more errors on the Trojans ended the match.

The accomplishments were not lost on Trojans’ coach Kim Bjork.

“It’s a great experience for the girls,” said Bjork. “A few of these girls were sophomores two years ago. When we talked about goals at the beginning of the year, one of those goals was to get back here.”

Gussert had similar things to say.

“This was our expectation this year,” Gussert said. “Unfortunately, we never play competition like we do down here, but we tried. We scrimmaged Calumet, which was really good for us.

“We were planning on coming down here and coming out with a win, but we still had a great season. I’m proud of [the team],” Gussert added.

“U.P. volleyball, in all classes, doesn’t get a lot of recognition,” Bjork said. “We’ve been here four times in our school history, so we’re not a stranger to it, but it’s tough once you get down here.”

Battle Creek St. Philip advances to Saturday’s Class D state championship where it will seek an eighth consecutive crown against Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes.