CALUMET - A long road is coming to an end this week for the Calumet volleyball team. There are at most three matches left.
However, their performance tonight in the Class C state quarterfinal against Traverse City St. Francis will determine whether Manistique is the last stop or merely a waystation on the way to bigger things to come.
The Copper Kings have reached the state's last eight for the first time since 2009. Though they've won every set in postseason play so far and dominated last week's regional tournament in Norway, coach Lisa Twardzik is confident her team still has its edge.
"The passion is still there. It's late in the season and they continue to control our side of the net and do what it takes to win," she said.
Since blowing out WestPAC rival West Iron County Thursday for the Copper Country's sixth straight regional title, Calumet got more good news Friday when the Michigan High School Athletic Association moved the site of tonight's match from West High in Traverse City, a 3 1/2-mile jaunt from the St. Francis campus, to Manistique. Tonight's C quarterfinal will be the second match of a doubleheader, 25 minutes after a Class D quarterfinal between Forest Park and Onaway at 5.
It matters to the Copper Kings, who watched rival Houghton play a true road match in the 2011 quarterfinals against Charlevoix, which the Rayders went on to win. Geography matters to the Gladiators, too, as they won their regional tournament on their home floor, sweeping Boyne City and Johannesburg-Lewiston.
"For this scenario in the past couple of years, it's huge to have a neutral site. Not only do both teams have to travel the same difference, you're talking about being able to get fans to the match as well," Twardzik said.
Regardless of where the teams play, St. Francis is a formidable opponent. The Gladiators, regional champions for the first time since 1997, are led by 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter Bridget Bussell. Bussell has over 500 kills this season after missing much of her junior year due to injury.
"Bridget's a big hitter. She's just reliable and she can take a game over," said St. Francis co-coach Heather Simpson.
Setter Kaitlyn Hegewald directs an offense with several threats, including freshman Madeline Ryzstak, who has more than 200 kills herself.
Tonight's match is the only one of the four C quarterfinals in which both teams are ranked by the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association coaches' poll.
The Copper Kings are No. 4 and the Gladiators No. 10.
"We know they're good if they've gotten this far. We're just excited to be in the position we are, to be playing," Simpson said.
The trio of Ellen Twardzik, Lexie Rowe and Kristy Lasanen ensures Calumet will have lots of firepower on its end of the net. That said, coach Twardzik said the victor may be the one who plays the better defense.
"It's going to be serve receive. If we're able to get the pass to target to stay in system, that will allow us to stay in our offense," she said.
Tonight's winner will play in Battle Creek's Kellogg Arena in the second of two semifinals Thursday afternoon at 3:45 against Pewamo-Westphalia or Unionville-Sebewaing.