By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart

BATTLE CREEK – On one hand, it was a tough way to end a great season for the Fruitport volleyball team.

But it was also a learning moment that could come in handy down the road for the Trojans – perhaps as soon as next year.

Fruitport, a young team with only one senior on the roster, caught fire in the state tournament over the past few weeks and earned a berth in Friday’s Class B state semifinals at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

But they ran into a powerhouse opponent, No. 1 ranked Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, and lost in three straight sets.

The biggest problems for the Trojans were Notre Dame’s twin towers – Natalie Risi (6-0) and Madeline Chinn (6-2) – who powered the Irish to the easy victory with 19 kills apiece.

No. 10 Kylie Oberlin on the attack for Fruitport as No. 11 Rachel Paulsen and No. 7 Kailey Carmean look up. Photo/Jason Goorman

Notre Dame Prep, now 63-2-2 on the season, advances to Saturday’s state championship match.

Fruitport, which captured district and regional championships in the tournament, finished its season with a 36-18-4 record.

“We knew we were going in as a major underdog,” said Fruitport Coach Nicole Bayle, who was making her first appearance in the state final four since 2011, when her team won the second of two straight state championships. “That was the best team we’ve played this year, by far.

“We knew they had a great team. We knew our focus had to be to take care of us. We worked hard, played great defense, and our offense was kind of clicking, but they served like madmen. I’m proud of the girls. They didn’t give up.”

The match was only close for a short time in the first set, when teams played to 1-1, 2-2, 5-5, 6-6 and 7-7 ties. But the Irish pulled away after that, winning the set 25-15.

The Trojans stayed close for the first few points of the second set, pulling within two points at 6-4, before the Irish cruised to a 25-9 win.

Fruitport’s Rachel Paulsen looks to put the hit over Notre Dame Prep defense at the net. Photo/Jason Goorman

Fruitport had its best run in the third and final set, when the Trojans rallied from an early 5-1 deficit and tied the score 8-8, powered by a four-point service run by Kailey Carmean. But again they couldn’t contain the Irish, who ran off with a 25-14 victory and sealed up the match.

Kylie Oberlin led the Trojans with seven kills while Morgan Fialek added six. Carmean had 20 assists. Defensively, Trinity Busscher had 10 digs and Rachel Paulsen added nine.

The Trojans didn’t seem devastated after the match. Most of the players will be back next year, and they seemed to understand that with a lot of hard work in the offseason, they could easily be in line to make a return trip.

“Nothing is more of a push in the right direction tat to see what the competition is like,” Bayle said. “This was a major season of learning for these guys.

“We just talked about it in the huddle – we got beat by a better team, they aren’t going to lose a lot of kids, so this is the standard we’re preparing for next year.”

When asked if they will be back in Battle Creek in a year, Oberlin and Carmean spoke in unison:

“Back and better.”