By Noah Genson

EGELSTON TOWNSHIP – The North Muskegon volleyball team had a great season in 2018, advancing all the way to the regional final round of the state tournament.

North Muskegon’s Syann Fairfield gets a shot over the Oakridge defense at the net. Photo/Leo Valdez

Coach Heather Claussen knew repeating that type of performance would be a challenge this year, with only one starter – junior Syann Fairfield – returning to the lineup.

But there is reason for optimism for the Norse, who improved to 11-7 on the young season with a tough five-set victory over a determined Oakridge squad on Tuesday in their West Michigan Conference opener.

“We lost some good passers and setters from last year’s team who really held us together at times,” Claussen said. “Replacing them wasn’t going to be easy.

“We came out slow to start the year, but turned it around in the Reeths-Puffer and Cadillac tournaments. We still have a lot to work on, but we’re honing in on exactly what we need to do now.”

The Norse had to work hard to down the Eagles in the hotly-contested match. They won by set scores of 25-23, 23-25, 25-20, 21-25 and 15-9.

They led for the entirety of the first set to take an early 1-0 lead.

After trailing for most of the second set, Oakridge was able to steal the momentum with a late service run by Hayden Ruel and tie the match at one set apiece.

The Norse came out hot in the third set, jumping out to a 20-9 lead behind service runs from Bre Adamczak and Emma Houseman. The Eagles fought back and tied things up at 20-20 with an 11-point service run from Emma Fri that included four aces.

Hayden Ruel gets the shot over the net for Oakridge. Photo/Leo Valdez

But North Muskegon scored the next five points to take the set and go up 2-1 in the match.

Oakridge was the aggressor in the fourth set, knotting the score at 2-2 and sending the match to a tie-breaker. But North Muskegon regrouped when it counted the most, cruising to a 15-9 win in the fifth set and taking the match.

“I thought our service game was a bit shaky and we could’ve defended a little better,” Coach Claussen said. “Like I said, some girls are still learning. Once we get into a flow, things will be working well.”

Despite the tough loss, Oakridge Coach Kim Hanson likes what she sees from her team so far.

“This is probably the most well-rounded group of girls I’ve been able to coach,” said Hanson, whose team is 8-6 so far this season.  “The combination of good passing and hard hitting is something I really look forward to this season.”

The Norse were led on offense by Fairfield with 17 kills while Camryn Klint added 14. Freshman Natalie Pannucci came up big late in the match with two key blocks.

Riann Fri and Bri Benson led Oakridge with eight and five kills, respectively. Emma Fri totaled 29 assists while Ruel added 22.