JANESVILLE - Kim Gamble and Blake Budrow find themselves in similar circumstances early in the Big Eight Conference girls volleyball season.
Both Gamble's Beloit Memorial squad and Budrow's Janesville Craig team entered their match Tuesday coming off a five-set loss in their league openers.
Equal parts young and talented, the Purple Knights and Cougars understand they must learn how to close out tight matches. And they showed off some of those growing pains against each other in Craig's gym.
Both teams built sizeable leads and coughed up sizeable leads Tuesday. They each staved off set or match points and each won at least one of them.
When the roller coaster ride ended, Craig outlasted Beloit in four sets, winning 25-21, 25-17, 24-26, 31-29.
"This is two (matches) in a row where we've had tight, tight sets and are pushing," Beloit coach Kim Gamble said. "But we're at the point where we have to figure out how to finish, and we need to get over that hump.
"Mentally, we need to get there. We haven't had a great record for how many years, and we finally have a team that's ready to compete."
The Purple Knights made sure the Cougars spent much of their night coming from behind.
Craig trailed 18-15 in the first set before scoring 10 of the final 13 points. Back-to-back kills from sophomore Britten Bertagnoli gave Craig a 23-21 lead, and sophomore McKaylie Justman followed with an ace to completely seize control.
The Cougars breezed through the second set, and head coach Blake Budrow did his best to encourage his players not to put their game in cruise control. Perhaps easier said than done, the Knights blazed out to a 14-2 lead. Junior Rebekkah De Kok forged the way, with four of her match-high six aces and two of her match-high 17 kills coming during that stretch.
"She (De Kok) is a go-to player and a good teammate," Gamble said. "Meghan Drucker, our setter, is just all over out there and never lets a ball die. She's going after everything. One of our keys to success is those two (Drucker and De Kok) connecting."
Craig, though, clawed all the way back. It scored 10 of the next 14 points to get within striking range. Later, down 23-17, the Cougars scored seven straight points--six of them scored on the serve of senior Taylor Morgan--to gain a lead.
Morgan served for match point, but Beloit dropped a shot on the back line to stay alive, then won the next two points to force a fourth set.
The Knights gave the Cougars all they could handle again in the fourth.
Craig led 10-5, but Beloit answered with a 6-0 run, and the teams went back and forth from there. The Cougars trailed 24-22 but staved off a pair of set points, thanks in part to the serve of junior Sophia Vitaioli.
From there, it was survival mode. Craig could not finish the match when it was up 25-24, but it avoided dropping the set when down 26-25 and 27-26. The Knights stayed alive when down 28-27, 29-28 and 30-29, but they could not make it four in a row as the Cougars held on.
"I really feel like the last set was ours to take," Gamble said. "And then we'd push it to five. We've just got to get there."
Bertagnoli and Rachel Bonham led Craig with nine kills apiece. Abby Trapp had 20 assists. Glissendorf and Vitaoli had seven digs each.
Drucker dished out 38 assists for the Knights.
• UP NEXT: Beloit hosts Sun Prairie on Thursday night.
• BOXSCORE: CRAIG 3, BELOIT 1 (25-21, 25-17, 24-26, 31-29).
Leaders: Aces--Rebekkah De Kok (B) 6, Sophia Vitaoli (C) 4. Kills--De Kok 17, Rachel Bonham (C) and Britten Bertagnoli (C), 9 each. Assists--Meghan Drucker (B) 38, Abby Trapp (C) 20. Blocks--Jackie Pabst (B) 5. Digs--Kylee Arn (B) 15, Lauren Glissendorf (C) and Vitaoli, 7 each.