By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – “Better the ball” as a volleyball phrase means adding something to improve a volley with every touch.
But it also was appropriate as Plymouth Christian’s adopted rallying cry this fall.
The Eagles came to their second straight Class D Semifinals at Kellogg Arena this weekend ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row. Last year, they didn’t make it to Saturday. But this time Plymouth Christian did advance – and then “bettered” itself one more time on the final day of this season.
Facing a familiar foe in friendly league rival Auburn Hills Oakland Christian, the Eagles clinched an unexpected deciding match in their season series – and with it, their first MHSAA championship by a score of 3-1.
“Last year, it was kinda new and it was more stressful because we’d never been in this situation before. So this year, we knew coming into it how our attitudes should be – that we should just treat it like any other game and give our all on everything,” Plymouth Christian junior hitter Grace Kellogg said. “We just needed to side out on the key points and not fall down or get down in tough situations or (over) things that we mess up. Just stay strong and tough the whole time.”
Plymouth Christian (35-11-3) had played in a championship match once before, falling to Battle Creek St. Philip in the 2010 Class D Final. In fact, the Eagles on Saturday became the first other than St. Philip or Leland to win Class D since 2004.
Last season they fell in a four-set Semifinal to St. Philip, with three of those sets decided by two points each.
“Last year, that’s what we ran into: experience,” said Plymouth Christian coach D.J. Kellogg, who’s also the father of Grace and freshman middle Gabriella Kellogg. “Had we gotten three points to go a different way last year, the match was ours.
“It came down to serving, and tipping and playing not to lose. This year the focus was, knowing that, let’s not come back with the deer in the headlights (look). Let’s go out and be aggressive.”
That started with aggressive scheduling. Ten of the 11 losses came to Class A or B schools, including Class A No. 1 Novi and No. 2 Clarkston and Class B No. 3 North Branch (and the Eagles beat Class B No. 2 Pontiac Notre Dame Prep). All of that helped prepare them for a Class D tournament run that included wins over No. 2 Mendon, No. 4 Lansing Christian and No. 10 North Adams-Jerome.
“We knew technically we had what it took,” Kellogg added. “It’s going to be more having the slight edge and a mental edge; that was going to be the thing that would push us over.”
Oakland Christian (43-5-5), of course, was the only non-A or B opponent to deal the Eagles a loss. After falling to Plymouth Christian 3-1 in their first meeting, the Lancers took the second 3-2 to force a shared title in the Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue.
After Plymouth Christian won the first set 25-18 on Saturday, Oakland Christian tied it up by claiming the second 25-22. But the Eagles found their "edge" after that, winning the third and fourth sets by identical 25-19 scores.
“It’s a little bit intimidating, having the past with them. … I think we both came in a little nervous, but pretty confident overall,” Oakland Christian senior Alexandra Gudobba said. “We respect each other as a team, and if anyone had to win, I guess I’m happy it’s them.”
Part of that “edge” Kellogg spoke of was anticipating better the variety of shots Oakland Christian has used – Kellogg called the Lancers one of the smartest teams his has faced because of its ability to find corners and tips. Senior libero Divna Roi played the biggest part in foiling those well-placed shots, finishing the match with 24 digs, tied for sixth-most in MHSAA Finals history.
The Kelloggs – who got their training “breaking stuff for years around our house playing volleyball,” according to Dad – led the offensive attack. Grace had 21 kills and Gabriella 13 taking passes from senior Jessica Paulson (18 assists) and junior Abigail Pray (26).
Gudobba led the Lancers with 14 kills and 16 digs, and senior Samantha Morse had 28 assists.
Although not in victory, the match provided a successful end for longtime Oakland Christian coach Priscilla Larned, who will retire with a record of 989-459-81 over 32 seasons. She also coached basketball, softball and soccer at the school, with Saturday’s the first championship match ever for her volleyball team. Oakland Christian entered this tournament ranked No. 6 in Class D.
“I was thinking about all the Saturdays I’m going to sleep in,” Larned joked after. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to make a laugh here somehow.
"It’ll be different. I’m a coach who never got to play in high school, and it’s been a great time coaching. It’s been a great era to coach. But I see the need for me to go on, and somebody else come in and bring more enthusiasm and get it going again.”
After last season’s near-miss, Plymouth Christian tried hard to not make a return to Battle Creek the goal for this fall. Coach Kellogg reasoned that if the Class D title were the goal, his players could feel like it was slipping away if they hit a lull during the four-month season.
Instead they focused on the process – bettering the ball daily to be the best at the end.
“Every interaction we have with our team, every touch of the ball on the court or off the court, every contact that we have we should be adding value to each other and adding value to the game and to the team,” Kellogg said. “And this team’s done that.
“This is the by-product. … They’ve had each others' backs the entire time, and that’s the kind of team that wins.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Plymouth Christian hoists its first MHSAA volleyball championship trophy Saturday. (Middle) Grace Kellogg goes for a kill for the Eagles with Genna Castillo (13) and Samantha Morse (16) defending the net for Oakland Christian.