ST. IGNACE-The Onaway volleyball team won't get a chance to return to Battle Creek this season.
Playing without senior outside hitter Mariah Ehrke, the Cardinals nearly played Pellston to five sets during a Class D regional semifinal on Tuesday, but ultimately fell to the Hornets, 19-25, 23-25, 25-13 and 28-26.
The win moves the Hornets to Thursday's regional final against Brimley and marks the first time in three seasons that Pellston has beaten the Cardinals in the regional semifinals.
"The girls played hard. Onaway is a great team, we've known that all year," Pellston coach Brooke Groff said.
Onaway held a 19-16 lead late in the fourth set, but Pellston came roaring back with a six-point streak that gave the Hornets a 22-19 lead. Pellston pushed Onaway to the brink after a block from Shaylee Smith, but Onaway was determined to go down fighting and scored the next three points to knot the set.
The Cardinals took a 26-25 lead, but Pellston got the upper hand after a kill from Megan Milbrandt and an ace from Kelly Lewis. Pellston won the match on the next volley when Onaway played the ball, but it ended up in the net and hit the floor.
Mackenzie Wright led Pellston with 15 kills and 17 digs, Smith added eight kills, Abbie Welch had seven aces and 23 digs and Hanah Carter chipped in with 26 assists.
"They went and pounded on the ball; Shay on the blocks, Mackenzie on her swings," Groff said. "They worked hard to get around the blocks that Onaway put up and they just worked hard the whole night."
Without Ehrke, who practiced, but didn't play due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were forced to replace their floor leader and struggled out of the gate. Several attacking errors and some miscues helped Pellston put together an 8-0 run early in the match, which gave them the lead for good.
"We didn't lay down, but we were moving some players around and Mariah's a horse. She has four and a half kills a set, that's 14 kills throughout a match that we have to replace," Onaway coach Steve Watson said of Ehrke." She's got the highest serve percentage and we have to replace it, she's the vocal leader on the floor and we have to replace it."
Onaway had already beaten Pellston twice this season and has breezed past opponents with offensive power, but the Cardinals faced a formidable match-up against the Hornets this time, particularly from Wright, Smith and Samantha Stark, who slammed kills past Onaway's defense and put several tips in the right spots.
"Pellston's the kind of team, they don't do anything bad, they don't do anything over the top great, they just do everything well," Watson said. "Tonight it was a tough road to hoe and we got some really bad breaks."
Still, the match had all the excitement of a regional, with both teams digging deep to keep play going, even when getting shots off or saving a ball seemed impossible.
Onaway wasn't able to find its footing in the first set and watched the Hornets pick up momentum. One bright spot for the Cardinals all night was Devin Bristley, who led Onaway with 17 kills and 24 digs.
Miscues and stellar play from Smith up front pushed the Hornets past the Cardinals in the second set. Both sides played to an 8-8 tie, before Pellston went on a 9-0 run. During the stretch, Smith had a kill, a tip and a block.
The Cardinals recovered late in the set and a four-point rally brought them to within one, 23-22. After a tip from Stark, Sara Fullerton scored on a kill to cut the lead to one, but Carter pushed Pellston to the win with a tip on the next volley.
Down to its last set, Onaway played some of its strongest volleyball of the night in the third set and outscored the Hornets 16-3 after tying the set early at 10-10. Several of the points came from Pellston's attack errors and defense mistakes at times when the Hornets didn't seem to know how to return the ball.
Taylor Ehrke added four kills, 32 assists, three aces, 18 digs and two blocks for Onaway; Fullerton had four kills, 13 digs and four blocks; Lexi Szymoniak had 13 digs and three blocks.
A year after making it all the way to the Class D semifinals, Watson was still proud of his team's effort throughout the season. The Cardinals wrapped up a Ski Valley title and won their third straight district crown.
"I'm proud of the girls, proud of what they've done. We didn't make it to Battle Creek, but this still might be the best team we've ever had, you could make that argument," Watson said.
James Andersen can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.