EagleHerald/Matt Lehmann

Stephenson’s Makayla Johnson goes airborne to block a kill attempt by Carney-Nadeau’s Sandra Boulton during the Division 4 District 99 championship match Thursday in Stephenson.
EagleHerald/Matt Lehmann
Stephenson’s Makayla Johnson goes airborne to block a kill attempt by Carney-Nadeau’s Sandra Boulton during the Division 4 District 99 championship match Thursday in Stephenson.

STEPHENSON — Two evenly matched teams, a raucous crowd and a title hanging in the balance. Thursday’s MHSAA Division 4 District 99 championship game between Stephenson and Carney-Nadeau had it all.

The Eagles and the Wolves pushed each other to the limit for over two hours before Carney-Nadeau was able to put Stephenson away 3-2 after an epic five-game match that will go down as one of the best volleyball games of the year.

“I think both teams played a great match tonight,” Carney-Nadeau head coach Steve Kedsch said. “It was unfortunate that a team had to lose. I thought Stephenson did a great job. Both teams had a few mistakes here and there, but they both played hard and played well.”

The teams split the first four games, with Carney-Nadeau taking game one 25-23 and game three 25-18, while Stephenson won game two 25-22 and game four 25-23. The Wolves squeaked out a 15-13 victory after a seesaw battle in the fifth and final game to win the district championship.

The Wolves have been one mountain that Stephenson has been unable to climb in recent seasons, having gone winless against Carney-Nadeau the past three seasons.

“It was difficult for us to string points together,” Stephenson head coach Sara Johnson said. “We’ve haven’t beaten them in a regular season game and we knew it was going to be a challenge tonight. It ended up being a battle.”

Carney-Nadeau took control early in game one, with a block by Liana Blahnik and the Eagles struggled to keep the ball inbounds helping to give the Wolves a 7-4 lead. Stephenson battled back courtesy of an ace by Zoe Chaney and a kill by Gena Anders that cut the lead to 8-7.

The two teams matched each other blow-for-blow until the Eagles grabbed the lead thanks to two straight kills by Paige Cappaert that put Stephenson up 20-16. Two consecutive balls hit out of play, a kill by Taylor Kedsch and an ace from Blahnik tied the game at 20-20 and Kedsch ended the game on a kill after Stephenson closed the gap to 24-23.

“They were hitting really well,” coach Johnson said. “We just weren’t able to play defense. The block wasn’t where we wanted it to be.”

A strong start at the net by Makayla Johnson and two straight aces by Emily Johnson helped the Eagles take a 4-1 lead in game two. Stephenson gifted the Wolves three consecutive points off balls hit out of play and ace by Kedsch tied the game at 8-8, but the Eagles manufactured a rally thanks to a block and a kill by Emily Johnson and grabbed a 17-14 advantage.

Momentum swung back in Carney-Nadeau’s favor after Stephenson hit the ball into the net on three plays but an ace by Cappaert and a kill by Makayla Johnson helped the Eagles take a 24-19 lead. The Wolves wouldn’t go quietly and fired off three consecutive points to make it a 24-22 score, but the game came to an end after Carney-Nadeau was unable to keep the ball from squirting just out of bounds.

Game three was another back-and-forth affair, with two teams battling to a 14-14 tie before Carney-Nadeau broke the game open off four consecutive kills by Blahnik and another kill by Kedsch. A serve/receive error helped Stephenson cut the deficit to 24-18, but a kill attempt by Makayla Johnson fell just out of bounds to end the game and give Carney-Nadeau the 2-1 lead.

With their season on the line, Stephenson came out firing in game four and jumped to a 8-5 off the back of kills by Makayla Johnson and Zoe Chaney, along with an ace by Sydney Swanson. The Eagles widened their lead after the Wolves had trouble keeping the ball in bounds but Carney-Nadeau rallied thanks to two blocks by Blahnik and a kill by Zoey Poupore to make the score 18-17.

The pendulum once again swung back in favor of the Eagles after four Carney-Nadeau balls bounced out of bounds and a kill by Emily Johnson gave Stephenson a 23-20 lead. The Wolves responded with two kills by Blahnik but were unable to keep the ball in play on the game’s final point and saw the Eagles tie the match up at 2-2.

The Wolves took a 8-5 lead in the deciding fifth game thanks to a kill by Heidi Kirschner and another block by Blahnik, but the Eagles fought back courtesy of kills by Anders and Makayla Johnson to make it a 12-10 game.

With their backs against the walls, the Eagles fired off an ace by Emily Johnson and a kill by Makayla Johnson that tied the game at 12-12. The Wolves took the lead off yet another block by Blahnik but served the ball into the set on the ensuing play to tie the game once more. A kill by Blahnik and an ace by Sandra Boulton sealed the deal for Carney-Nadeau as they won game five and took their place as district champions.

“This is unbelievable,” Kedsch said. “At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know what kind of team we had. We lost four starters from a season ago and the girls just came together and got better every week.”

And for Stephenson, coach Johnson said that her team can hold their heads high despite the disappointing ending to the season.

“I’m very proud of my team. We just kept building and building as the season went on and our seniors really stepped up. They supported each other through thick and thin and they will continue to do that.”