L'ANSE - When your best player takes on the role of best leader, usually the result that follows leaves everyone smiling.
Thursday night, down two sets to the rival Baraga volleyball team, L'Anse senior Valerie Rajala gave an impromptu and impassioned speech to her team as they gathered before the third set.
"I told them that if I lose to Baraga at home my senior year I am going to cry," Rajala said. "I asked them if they wanted to see me cry? I told them that this is not going to happen, we are not losing."
L’Anse’s Valerie Rajala blocks a Baraga kill attempt during Thursday’s match. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
Baraga’s MacKenzie Keefer swings on an attack in the second set of Thursday’s match at L’Anse. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
With their do-it-all star leading the way, L'Anse rallied to score 25-14, 25-18 and 15-7 victories over the final three sets to pull out a five-set comeback over the Vikings.
Rajala finished with 13 kills and nine blocks from her middle position, and also dug out 25 balls as the center of the backline defense.
Each time the Vikings strung a point or two together, Rajala could be seen cajoling and encouraging her teammates.
This was no simple "side-out" declaration either. She demanded they win the ball back.
"She took it personally," L'Anse coach Jen Knisely said of Rajala's leadership. "She really pumped up her team. As a captain, that is going to sink in. When she is setting the example, you have to follow."
After losing the first two sets 25-19 and 25-22, L'Anse tightened up its defense and passing, cutting down on the errors and giving setter Rebecca Roth an easier ball to play.
Roth kept feeding Rajala from there, and the middle put down kills from every angle on the court, finishing with 11 of her 13 kills in the final three sets.
"She finds the hole, she is a very smart player," Knisely said. "She knows where the openings are and gets the ball there."
"I kept telling the girls, we can't keep giving them free balls, we have to attack, otherwise they can run their offense through Val," Baraga coach Peggy Reinsch said.
Baraga rallied a bit in the fourth and fifth sets, with setter Kelly Bender finding the strong-armed Melissa Putala repeatedly on the outside.
Even with successful swings on the ball though, libero Allison Waara and Rajala kept finding a way to dig the ball out and keep the point alive.
This frustration for the Vikings featured twice at the end of the final set, with Putala booming balls to the back line that Waara and Alyssa Norback saved. Both times, Baraga committed a hitting error on the next sequence.
"After everyone gets their head in the game we can be dominant," Rajala said. "We stopped giving them free points on our errors and made them earn each point.
"We worked on that so much last week, so it was nice to see it showing up in the game," Knisely added.