Raiders battle back to win Regional Championship

A feature:

History was made as the Raiders came back through the losers bracket for the first time ever to win Regionals and advance to Nationals for the ninth time in the past 12 years.

In the previous eight championships, GRCC made it to the finals after winning the first two or three matches, but this time it was different. It took grit; it took desire; it took winning three matches -- nine sets -- on Championship Saturday.

On Thursday, the Raiders took care of business in their first match by sweeping the Lansing Community College Stars by 25-22, 25-21 and 25-22. That set up a Winners Bracket final on Friday night against Muskegon Community College -- which snapped the Raiders' nine-match streak against them by winning 20-25, 25-22, 25-19 and 25-20.  GRCC then had to win three matches on Championship Saturday, and the team did so by taking out Glen Oaks in straight sets (25-14, 25-15, 25-19), then taking down Muskegon (25-12, 25-21, 25-23 and then 25-22, 25-18, 15-25, 25-23).

Friday's night matchup against the 16th-ranked Jayhawks started off well for the Raiders as they led nearly the entire first set and won 25-20.  But Muskegon played hard and the Raiders had difficulty landing a kill, digging out nearly 100 balls for the entire match, and the Jayhawks worked their way to win the final three sets. That win put MCC in the Championship match, and it put the Raiders in an 11 a.m. matchup against the Glen Oaks Vikings.

The Raiders' offense and serving was on fire all match long and they cruised to victory against Glen Oaks.  GRCC hit .308 as a team and had 10 aces, including three from Jamie Wellet.  Of the team's 38 kills, 11 came from Kendra DeJonge while Dani Johnston and Bre Wickerink combined for 15 and just one hitting error.

2016 was a very memorable Regional for both squads, as the Jayhawks nearly did what the Raiders pulled off this year.  On their own court, Muskegon beat the No. 1 seeded Raiders 15-8 in the fifth set, forcing a winner-take-all championship and it looked as if the Jayhawks would get the upset.  They won the first two sets easily, 25-17 and 25-17, but back came the Raiders, taking the next two sets, 25-22, 25-21 and then in a back and forth  fifth set, 22-20!

This year's final proved just as memorable.

In the first round of the finals, the Raiders dominated the first set, winning 25-12. In the second set, they survived a late scare but won  25-21, and then won a nail-biter (that no one led by more than three points) 25-23. They hit a blistering .419 in set one and finished with a solid .250 hitting percentage. Wickerink -- who had the match winning kill -- and DeJonge combined for 29 of the 49 total kills.  Emma Pachulski had a very good eight-kill match while adding two blocks.  The Jayhawks hit just .102 for the match with Jaren Smith leading them with 11 kills.

That Raider win set up the 6th meeting of the year between MCC and GRCC, and in this one, the Jayhawks were the ones dominating early.  They jumped out to an 18-10 lead and seemed as if they would cruise to the set one win.  But the Raiders clawed all the back to tie it up at 21, after back- to-back aces from Johnston and then a kill by DeJonge.  The Jayhawks regained the lead on the next serve, but the Raiders completed the huge comeback after a kill by Wickerink, then DeJonge and then the set winner from Wickerink!  DeJonge had seven of her match- and season-high 24 kills in the set.

In the second set, the Jayhawks led for the first 27 points, but another comeback would put the Raiders back in front, 15-14.  A block by Lauren Jonker and Autumn Severn gave the Raiders the lead for good as their squad finished the set off on 12-4 run, winning 25-18.  DeJonge, Wickerink, Johnston and Kayla Salyer combined for all 13 Raider kills.

The relentless Jayhawks would not let the Raiders make yet another comeback as they dismantled the Conference/MCCAA Champions 25-15 in set three. GR only hit .083 despite five more kills from DeJonge.

For much of the fourth set, the score was within one or two points,  and despite the Raiders leading for much of it, the Jayhawks would just not go away.  Late in the set, with the score nodded at 20, it became the "Dani Johnston Show" as she had 13 hitting attempts.  She would get kills to make it 21-20, 22-20 then another to make it 24-20.  Phenomenal digs and blocking by MCC ending up resulting to two Johnston errors and a 24-22 score.  But she wasn't going to be denied this time as she ripped one down the line in the back corner for the championship kill!

Tournament MVP Kendra DeJonge saved one of her best performances of the year for the final match, finishing with 24 kills, hitting a solid .286, and added 23 digs and two aces (both team highs as well).  Also joining  DeJonge on the All-Tournament team were Johnston, Wickerink and Schultz.  Johnston connected on 11 of her team-high 61 hitting attempts, adding 7 digs and two blocks. Wickerink had 10 kills with Pachulski adding four.  Schultz and Jamie Wellet were all over the court, combining for 39 of the 95 Raider digs.

The Raiders should know in a couple days who they will square off against in Nationals, which will be held in Charleston, W.Va. The 16-team double elimination tournament begins on Nov. 15.

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