By RON DEUTER
KINGSFORD - Another state quarterfinal awaits the Forest Park Lady Trojans volleyball team.
Forest Park senior Gina Graff (white jersey) was a key contributer in Thursday’s Class D regional final sweep over Superior Central. Graff led the Trojans with 19 digs and four aces.
With a 25-13, 25-15, 25-16 victory over Superior Central Thursday evening at Kingsford High School, the Lady Trojans collected a third straight Class D regional title.
"We've been waiting for this for a while," said junior Lexi Gussert, who pounded a match-best 21 kills against the Cougars. "We're happy to keep the tradition of success alive."
The Trojans (31-3-3) will face Onaway (47-4-3), a 3-0 winner over Rudyard, in a quarterfinal to be played Tuesday at Petoskey at 6 p.m. (Central).
Entering the state's final eight, Forest Park won't see the likes of Pellston this year - the team the Lady Trojans beat in a quarterfinal last year after falling to them in the quarters the season prior - but six-time defending state champion Battle Creek still lurks.
Battle Creek ended Forest Park's season in the state semis last year.
"We have to keep working hard," Forest Park coach Kim Bjork said. "We know everything is going to get tougher. We've been there before."
Wrapping up the regional trophy here Thursday was more exercise than a challenge for the Lady Trojans. Even though Superior Central brought its best effort, it wasn't enough to slow down Gussert and the Lady Trojans.
"They just kept us so off balance that we really couldn't get in our flow to set it up and hit," Cougars coach Kris Bray said. "I thought we played pretty tough. We didn't get a lot of points, but my girls played up a notch and that's all I can ask of them, so I'm really proud of them."
Brooke Pasanen's five kills led the Cougars. Kelsey Coleman added four more, and Vanessa Freberg led the team with nine digs. The Cougars were making their first-ever regional final appearance. In fact, the young Superior Central program never won a tournament game ahead of this year's playoff run.
"It was absolutely huge," Bray said of her team's success. "I'm very proud of them, and with only losing two seniors, I am excited for the future. We're going to be back here."
While Forest Park had no problem pulling away in the first two sets, the Cougars made the Lady Trojans sweat a little more in the final set. After first rallying from a 9-2 hole to start the set, the Cougars grabbed a lead at 16-15 thanks to a block by Coleman.
But Forest Park, with Gina Graff at the serving line, stopped Superior Central right there, closing the match on a 9-0 run. Graff served up two of her four aces during the push, while Gussert ended it with three tips and a slam.
"It feels good to win region in my senior year," Graff said. "It's all I could ask for from this team. Hopefully we bring our best down state. I hope we can make as far as last year or even farther, but we have to take it a game at a time."
Graff finished with a team-best 19 digs. Gussert added 10 digs with two aces. Mindy DeNell had four kills and six digs, Abby Sommers collected six digs, and Maria Stankewicz totaled 22 assists.
While Gussert leads most of the stat lines for the Trojans this season, the junior said this year's success is because of contributions from everyone on the floor.
"We all love this game," she said. "When we're out there having a good time and communicating, that's when we're playing our best."
Coach Bjork says the youth of this year's team is another asset. The Lady Trojans show just four seniors on the roster.
"I think sometimes it's good to be young," Bjork said. "You don't build up things so much, you don't realize how big things are until it hits you later. I think that's kind of a good thing.
"And with a lot of young girls, we are just going to continue to improve. I always tell our team if we can get past the regionals it just continues to build our program and make us more hungry for hopefully a state title."
Heading into Tuesday's quarterfinal, Bjork said one working in the Trojans favor is quarterfinal experience, which Onaway lacks.
"It's tough to go into a match at the quarterfinal level without experience," she said. "We have experience there, and we know what the atmosphere is in a quarterfinal. We know what to expect."
Thursday's summary follows:
Teslyn Tyner - 1 kills, 5 digs; Vanessa Freberg - 3 kills, 1 block, 9 digs; Brooke Pasanen - 2 aces, 5 kills, 3 digs; Mikayla Barrows - 1 ace; Kelsey Coleman - 4 digs, 1 ace, 4 kills, 1 block, 1 assist; Lindsey Richmond - 3 aces, 1 kill, 8 assists, 5 digs.
Lexi Gussert - 21 kills, 2 aces, 10 digs, 1 assist; Mindy DeNell - 4 kills, 3 aces, 6 digs, 2 assists; Gina Graff - 4 aces, 19 digs; Abby Sommers - 6 digs; Maria Stankewicz - 2 aces, 22 assists; Libby Shamion - 2 digs; Kendra Campbell - 3 kills; Mary Grandahl - 1 dig; Sam Nylund: 1 kill, 1 assist.