BATTLE CREEK — An adjusted block strategy and strong team play in all aspects of the game helped No. 3-seeded Battle Creek edge second-seeded Norfolk Catholic in Mid-State Conference semi-final action here Tuesday night.

That combination helped the Bravettes seize control of the match by winning the first two sets — 25-21 and 25-18 — but when Battle Creek loosened its collective grip ever so slightly during the third set, the Knights took advantage and earned a third-set win 25-22.

When the match came down to big points and big plays in the fourth-and-final set, the Bravettes were up to the challenge, securing a 28-26 victory that sends Battle Creek, now 25-4, into Thursday night’s championship game against top-seeded Wayne — a 3-1 victor over Hartington Cedar Catholic.

Norfolk Catholic will face the Trojans in the third-place match on Thursday.

“Our kids are hard to read sometimes in terms of whether they’re ready to play, because they’re so quiet,” Battle Creek coach Cody Wintz said. “But tonight, when we went into the locker room before the match, they were pretty jacked — so we actually had to calm them down a little bit, so they didn’t expend all their energy before the game.” 

The Knights (21-5) swept Battle Creek 3-0 just 12 days ago, but because of that, Wintz said he made an adjustment after that loss to better challenge Norfolk Catholics outside hitters.

“The first time we played them, their outsides got the majority of their swings, so we tried to adjust our block a little bit to take away the crosscourt area,” Wintz said. “If the block doesn’t quite get there, the ball goes to our middle back defender. It worked pretty well early on, but credit Catholic, they were down 2-0 and kept fighting — it was a challenge, for sure.”

“Our back row played well when Catholic did get swings, because they’ve got big hitters, and when our block didn’t get a touch we had our libero Paytyn Taake who cleaned up a lot of balls for us and kept us in some rallies,” he said.

The adjusted block served its purpose in defending the Knights’ offense, but the Bravettes also had success offensively.

“I thought Tria McLean, as well as both of our middles — BriAnna Zohner and Riley Seifert — played extremely well,” Wintz said. “Those three are kind of our ‘go-to’ players in the front row, but our right side players — Maddy Taake and Renee Brummels — have really been coming the past couple weeks. They’re getting swings, and they’re getting kills. Their confidence has really grown.”

McLean and Seifert led Battle Creek with 22 kills each, while Zohner contributed 13. Taake accumulated 33 digs defensively.

Battle Creek’s defensive effort in the first set led to chances for the Bravettes’ offense, and six kills — two by McLean and one each by Kaitlyn Pochop, Seifert, Brummels, and Zohner--helped establish a 9-4 lead that increased to 13-7 on Seifert’s second kill. 

Meanwhile, the Knights’ offense was struggling early on, producing two kills each by Hayden Wolf and Abby Miller, and one from Channatee Robles, while Battle Creek took control of the game’s momentum until a series of five  attack errors by the Bravettes helped Norfolk Catholic reduce its deficit to two points on four separate occasions — the last at 23-21 on another Miller kill. But back-to-back attack errors by the Knights led to a 25-21 Battle Creek win.

“Battle Creek served tough, and I think we became a little timid at times and dug ourselves a hole early, and it’s hard to come back against a good team like that,” Knights coach Michaela Bellar said.

In the second set, the Bravettes sprinted to a 6-1 lead behind three kills by McLean, three by Seifert, and one each from Zohner and Maddy Taake. More mistakes hindered the Norfolk Catholic attack, preventing the Knights from stringing together enough points to get closer than four points, at 19-15, before another flurry of Battle Creek offense — including consecutive kills by Zohner and Seifert, followed by an ace serve from Zohner, and kills by Makenna Taake and Seifert ended the Bravettes’ 25-18 victory.

Norfolk Catholic’s third-set win was hard-earned as the Knights battled back from a 14-9 deficit with help from three kills from Mary Fennessy, two kills and two-straight ace serves by Wolf to take their first lead of the match at 17-16.

“We told the girls they had one set to prove themselves, that it’s got to be one set at a time,” Bellar said. 

Four tie scores later, the last at 22-all, Norfolk Catholic won the set when Miller killed an over-pass, Fennessy added a kill on a slide move, and a pair of Battle Creek errors set up a 25-22 win for the Knights.

Miller led Norfolk Catholic with 16 kills, followed by Fennessy and Wolf with 15 and 13, respectively.

“I’m just proud of the girls. They worked really hard and made a lot of hustle plays, as did Catholic, that kept balls alive,” Wintz said. “Things that we call two-point plays — where it should have been a point for them, but we save it and earn the point. Those were huge tonight.” 

The intensity of the fourth and deciding set began with the teams reaching tie scores seven times, beginning at 19-all and ending at 26-26, before the Bravettes clinched the match on a kill by McLean and a block by Zohner.

“The girls fought back and responded really well,” Bellar said. “We just made too many errors and came up short. We made more errors than I’ve seen us make in awhile. Mentally, we just weren’t tough tonight, and that’s something we continue to work on.”

Both coaches mentioned that the momentum that can be gained by playing well on Thursday night — Battle Creek, with the opportunity to play in the championship game and also the third-place game for the Knights — can be important next week as well, when the teams could see each other again in subdistrict play.

“It’s too bad that us, Wayne, and Norfolk Catholic are all in the same subdistrict, because I think we’re some of the top teams in the state,” Wintz said. “Here, we’re battling it out all week in this conference tournament, and then next week we’re going to battle again in the subdistrict.”

Mid-State Conference semi-final

Battle Creek (25-4) defeats Norfolk Catholic (21-5)

25-21, 25-18, 22-25, 28-26

In other news

Two speakers at the Nebraska Farmers Union state convention at Divots Conference Center on Friday afternoon offered visions of the future of Norfolk and Nebraska, one highlighting positive change and another painting a potentially grim outlook.