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Bulldogs top Onaway in thrilling regional final

News Photo by James Andersen Onaway hitter Malaurie McLean (6) tries to hit a ball past Rudyard defender Nina Alpers during a Division 4 volleyball regional final on Thursday in Cheboygan.

CHEBOYGAN — Rudyard got its revenge on Thursday.

Nina Alpers had 15 kills and helped the Bulldogs defeat Onaway in four sets to win a Division 4 regional volleyball title at Cheboygan High School.

Rudyard won 24-26, 25-18, 27-25 and 25-22 to move to a quarterfinal matchup next week.

Last year, the Bulldogs were left heartbroken on the sidelines after blowing a late lead and dropping a regional final to Onaway in five sets. On Thursday, the Bulldogs were on the other side of things, triumphing over the Cardinals in a match that proved every bit as good as last year’s.

“We’ve been getting text messages from last year’s team and they’re like ‘Look you guys, we’re all praying for you’ and I know that Sara (Beelen) and Nina (have thought about last year),” Rudyard coach Ellen Perry said. “I know this is really special to Sara and Nina especially.”

In a match filled with furious momentum swings, incredible defensive play and both sides trading (figurative) haymakers on the court, it was Rudyard who emerged victorious after breaking an 18-18 tie late in the final set.

After an Onaway serve went out of bounds, Rudyard took advantage of an attacking error and a serve receive error as part of a four-point swing that gave the Bulldogs a 22-18 lead. Onaway battled back to cut the lead to two, but a kill from Beelen and an ace from Chesney Molina swung momentum back in Rudyard’s favor.

Onaway got to within two again after an ace from Malaurie McLean, but Brooklyn Besteman finished things off with a kill to secure the regional title.

It was a frustrating ending for Onaway, which started the final set on a 5-0 run and matched Rudyard big play for big play down the stretch. Onaway led 17-15 midway through the set, but a three-point swing pulled the Bulldogs even with the Cardinals before they took over.

“They’ve been playing great all season. We got to use the unusual position of being an underdog this year and that was fine. We had two sets in there that (were decided by) two points,” Onaway coach Steve Watson said. “We had one set where we had a lot of errors, so that was a straight-up loss…That’s one of the things that makes it tough; we’re losing to a team we know we can compete with.”

Breya Domke had another record-setting night for the Cardinals, breaking her own school record for kills in a match with 26, but Onaway was ultimately left wondering what might have been. A fast start in the third set and another late swing nearly gave the Cardinals the advantage, but the Cardinals made a few errors too many and allowed Rudyard to keep things close.

Rudyard held a 24-22 lead late, but Onaway battled to tie the set. Both teams traded points to make it 25-all, but Rudyard won in the end, after an Onaway attacking error and a kill from Beelen.

Beelen and Besteman each had 11 kills and Tristan Smith had eight for Rudyard. In all, Rudyard finished with 48 team kills. Molina had 35 assists and Rudyard had 94 digs as a team.

“That’s to Onaway’s credit. They’re the scrappiest team we’ve played,” Perry said of her team’s high kill total. “We had a hard time blocking and we knew that was going to be tough. (Domke) has kind of an unorthodox approach that makes it really hard to block and she’s a really exceptional player.”

Domke also finished with 21 digs. Mallorie Neelis had five kills, 27 assists, four aces and 20 digs for Onaway and McLean had three kills, five aces and 14 digs; Jordan Larson had 19 digs; Cloe Ehrke had 19 digs; Jackie Sellke had 16 digs and Lexi Horton had two kills.

The loss ended a season in which Onaway won a Ski Valley Conference title and a district title, but was looking for its fourth regional championship since 2012.

“We set goals every year. Sometimes we accomplish all of them, sometimes we accomplish some of them. (This) was one of those years. You always like to win some hardware, whether it’s a conference championship (and) we’ve got one of those, whether it’s a district championship (and) we’ve got one of those,” Watson said. “Regionals is special, the quarterfinals and getting to the semifinals, so it’s hard not to look at that disappointment.”

Both teams’ abilities were on display early as both sides made incredible plays to keep volleys going for long stretches and no lead seemed safe. Onaway had a six-point run midway through the first set, but Rudyard stormed back to tie it at 13-all. Onaway eventually won the set after scoring five of the last six points.

Rudyard raced out to a 7-3 lead to open the second set and kept Onaway playing catch-up the whole way. The Cardinals rallied briefly midway through the set, but Rudyard took off again and won easily, earning the first of three straight sets.