By Jason Goorman

Rivalries usually are born when two teams meet each other year in and year out, in the same conference.

In volleyball, Western Michigan Christian and North Muskegon have a rivalry. But the two non-league opponents meet up in the postseason when ‘all the marbles’ are up for grabs.

Kendal Young sets the ball for WMC. Photo/Jason Goorman

WMC, which captured the Lakes 8 conference title outright this season, battled on Thursday night in the Division 3 district finals against the Norse who finished second in the West Michigan Conference behind Whitehall.

The two teams collided for the fourth-straight season in the district finals. And clearly from this year’s match, either team could have won.

The Warriors came out on top as WMC won in five games. But the match was never secured until the final game.

“Two years ago (2019), we beat them, but the year before (2018) they beat us and last year (2020) they beat us in the district,” said WMC coach Trent Smiley about the Warriors’ constant matchup with the Norse in the district finals. “So It’s kind of been an annual thing.”

North Muskegon was the underdog this year as the Warriors entered the game ranked No. 2 in the state with an impressive 45-5 record.

The game’s outcome was back and forth and fans were left anticipating the fifth game. The Warriors pulled away with a convincing 15-5 Game-5 win. But the match was far from that convincing.

“It was hard tonight because we were in their gym,” said Smillie while standing in district host North Muskegon’s gym after the win. “If we didn’t meet in districts, I think we both could have gone a lot further (in the postseason).

WMC’s Libby Mast gestures to teammate Maddie Wiersema with No. 3 Hannah Heiss in the background after scoring a point. Photo/Jason Goorman

The Norse opened up with a 25-23 win, which they came back to steal from a 22-21 deficit. Game 2, the Warriors won, 25-21.

Game 3, North Muskegon held a convincing 24-17 lead but the powerful Warriors did not let the Norse walk away with an easy win. Led by the impressive net play from Kyla Wiersema, The Warriors rattled off four-straight points and got the momentum to shift even though WMC fell, 25-21.

“I told the girls if we are going to win or lose this, we are going to do it playing Warrior volleyball,” said Smillie after his team went down 2-1 and faced elimination in Game 4. “After that game, that’s when they started playing their game.”

WMC took Game 4, 25-17 and took that edge into the final game and walked away as the 2021 Division 3 district champs. The win advances WMC to the regionals which it will host starting on Tuesday.

The Warriors, led by a trio of 6-foot net minders and a highly functioning setup person in junior setter Kendal Young, took control after Game 3. Twin sisters and 6-0 tall seniors, Kyla Wiersema and Maddie Wiersema, along with senior Libby Mast, were the power the Warriors needed up front to pull away.

North Muskegon’s No. 12 Allie Jensen, No. 8 Sami Baker and Molly Stewart wait for the serve. Photo/Jason Goorman

“It was because this is always a big game when we play North Muskegon,” said WMC junior setter Young. “But with our girls, it doesn’t matter the quality of the team. We want to win, we want to keep going.”

Keep going is what the Warrior hitters did behind Young, as she got into her groove giving the Wiersema sisters perfect sets at the net to hammer home points. Kyla Wiersema came though in a huge way in Game 3, getting three straight kills, pushing her team to challenge the Norse to win the game after holding the big lead.

“I think they (North Muskegon) were in our heads a little bit in the first set or two. But we were realizing after watching Saugatuck’s disappointment after we beat them (in the district semifinals), we didn’t want that to be us,” said Young

WMC did not fold, as it won the final two games and walked away district champs.

The Norse managed to challenge the highly ranked Warriors behind first-year Coach Kammi Ecker.

“We played our butts off and I could not ask for anything more from my seniors,” said Ecker who is assisted by her father and long-time area volleyball coach, Bob Ecker. “They gave me everything they had this season. It takes a lot to accept a new coach and my seniors believed in me and I believed in them.”

North Muskegon finishes the season 27-22-2.

The Norse were led by Natalie Pannucci with 21 kills and two blocks, Molly Stewart with 10 kills and an ace, and Sami Baker with 41 assists and 14 digs.

Joslynne Bogner had seven kills, Megan Houseman posted 17 digs, Josse Cooke had 11 digs and Jaley Schulz had 10 for North Muskegon.

Check out more photos from the action shot by Jason Goorman.