By Steve Gunn

HESPERIA – It’s tough to say what was most impressive about the Western Michigan Christian volleyball team on Tuesday night in the opening round of regionals.

WMC’s Chloe Mitchell sets the ball at the net. Photo/Leo Valdez

Was it the way the Warriors dominated a very good Hesperia team in the first two sets, or the way they came from way behind to steal the final set by two points and win the match?

Either way, WMC looked strong in its 3-0 shutout of Hesperia in Division 3 regionals on the Panthers’ home court. Now the Warriors advance to Thursday’s title match with a chance to do something WMC volleyball has never done – win a regional championship.

The Warriors, now 38-10-3 on the season, will play Pewamo-Westphalia at 5:30 p.m. at Hesperia High School. The winner will advance to next week’s state quarterfinals.

Western Michigan Christian is the last local team standing in the state volleyball tournament. Grand Haven, Montague, Muskegon Catholic and Pentwater all lost their regional matches on Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of history in our school’s trophy case, but our volleyball program has a little less history,” said WMC Coach Trent Smillie, whose team is ranked fourth in the state in Division 3. “We’re trying to make a little history. If we’re on I think we can beat anybody.”

On paper, Tuesday’s matchup seemed pretty even, with two very good local squads fighting it out to keep their seasons alive. But when they hit the court, WMC was obviously a cut above.

The Warriors had no trouble at all in the first two sets, beating the Panthers 25-11 and 25-13.

At that point it looked it would be a quick sweep for WMC, but the Panthers showed their pride in the third set. They jumped out to leads of 18-10, 21-13 and 22-15 and seemed to be in control.

Kyra Sayer gets up for the play at the net for Hesperia. Photo/Leo Valdez

But the Warriors came storming back, winning eight of the next nine points to tie things up at 23-23.  Hesperia pulled ahead 24-23 and had a chance to put the set away, but WMC won the next three points, stole the set 26-24 and won the match.

“This year’s team has kind of taken it to another level,” Smillie said. “They just have a lot of confidence in themselves and their ability to come back from different situations. In 10 matches this year we’ve lost the first set and come back to win the match.”

One obvious advantage for WMC was the diversity of its power game. While most varsity teams have one or two big hitters who can knock down kills at crucial times, the Warriors have several, making life miserable for opposing teams.

Meghan Heiss registered eight kills on Tuesday, Alisha Leffring totaled seven and Taylor Folkema and Kyla Wiersema added six apiece.

Claudia Kingma had 12 service points and Chloe Mitchell directed the offense with 37 assists. Mitchell also had five blocks while Folkema had 17 digs.

“We have hitters and as setter and a couple girls not even in the game who can really put it down,” Smillie said.

For Hesperia, it was a tough way to end a great season. The Panthers finished with a 39-12-1 record, captured their second straight Division 3 district title, and set a new program record for victories in a season.

Perhaps the best part is that Coach Monica Grimard is expecting all 12 players to return next season, since they are all juniors.

Rachel Romero and Emily Bayle led the Panthers in the loss with 12 and 8 kills, respectively. Kyra Sayer totaled 11 assists. Defensively, Bayle had 10 digs and Brooke Billings had two blocks.

“It’s sad but we knew it was going to be tough to do,” Grimard said. “We’re coming back with all 12 girls. As long as everybody stays healthy, we should have a good season next year. We’ve taken a little step every year. Every year we’ve gotten a little better.”