BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — Along the east end of the Kellogg Arena gymnasium, the Bedford seating section hung signs celebrating each of the Kicking Mules' players with the words "Love of the Game" added.
Thanks to a strong comeback by Rockford in the third set, the fans — and the Kicking Mules — hated the outcome.
Bedford held a five-point lead in the set, but the Rams staged a 10-point comeback and walked away with a 25-22, 25-14, 25-20 victory Thursday in Michigan High School Athletic Association volleyball semifinal action.
It was the second year in a row that the Kicking Mules (65-11-1) lost in the state semifinals.
Bedford, ranked seventh in the final state poll conducted by the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association, held its own with second-ranked Rockford at first.
Despite falling behind 15-6 in the first set, the Mules rallied to within two points at 19-17 and eventually trailed by one, 23-22, late in the set. Rockford rallied for kills from Avery Punches and Halle Peterson to close out the set.
After the second set got away from the Mules, Bedford held a 20-15 lead in the third set. Then came the collapse, which left everyone wondering what happened.
"I think the tension level was really high, and we were trying to stay calm. We just got a little flustered, and no one could overcome it," said senior Emily Blank, a Miss Volleyball finalist who ended up with 10 kills in her final high school match.
Once the Mules got into that rotation, Bedford coach Jodi Manore rightly suspected her team was in trouble.
"That last rotation has been a bad one for us all year," Manore said. "I think we had the lead, things were going good, and their server got hot. Before you knew it, two or three points turned into five or six."
The Mules fielded a lineup with five seniors, but Rockford (59-8) had a dominating lineup with seven seniors, including two Miss Volleyball candidates in senior middle hitter Andrea Kacsits (Ohio State) and setter Peterson (Michigan State).
That lineup has been hot all season, and Saturday it gets a chance at the school's first-ever state title in volleyball.
There are no regrets on Manore's part. After a few down seasons following the school's last state title in 2005, Manore feels glad to be back in the Final Four.
"Being where we are at [in the state], we don't have to see big schools like East Kentwood and Portage Central, and I appreciate it," Manore said. "But we have always made getting back here to the state semifinals our goal. This year we really wanted to do a little bit more. Rockford was the best team by far here this year."
For senior Emily Williams, a return trip was a good way to end the season, even if the outcome was not.
"Going in last year we didn't know what to expect," Williams said. "Last year was the big learning curve for us, and this time we played how we felt we could, and we really wanted to get back here. We feel accomplished by just being here, and next year the girls need to bring the trophy back to Bedford."
Ellen Hays had 31 digs for the Mules, and Taylor Foster supplied eight kills and four blocks.