By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
MONROE – Flip the Switch.
Every year, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central head coach Karen O’Brien comes up with a catchphrase that she can use in conversations with her team for motivation.
This year, O’Brien picked the phrase “Flip the Switch,” which signals that MHSAA Tournament time is the time the Kestrels need to turn their game up a notch if they want to repeat as Division 3 champions.
“We know we have a goal we want to accomplish, and we are working hard to get there,” said SMCC senior Anna Dean. “There’s always another level that we can reach, every game.”
To this point, the Kestrels have answered the call. On Thursday, SMCC beat Manchester in straight sets to improve to 36-2 on the season and advance to Tuesday’s Quarterfinal against Bronson. O’Brien, in her sixth year coaching the Kestrels, said her team is making steady progress, but they still have potential to get better.
“We know we have another level we can raise our game to,” she said. “We haven’t played at that level yet in the playoffs. We know we need to flip the switch, mentally and physically, if we want to be at the next level.”
SMCC is a veteran team with seven seniors who have been playing together for years. Miss Volleyball finalist Mikayla Haut is joined by classmates Grace Lipford, Abbie Costlow, Jaydin Nowak, Kylie Barron, Anna Dean and Olivia Anderson. There are also five juniors and two sophomores on the postseason roster.
Haut is the second member of her family to be a Miss Volleyball finalist. Cassie Haut, now an assistant coach with the program, was a finalist in 2014 before becoming an all-Mid-American Conference player at Eastern Michigan University.
“I think Mikayla learned last year that she doesn’t have to carry us, she has to lead us,” O’Brien said.
Haut showed off her talent in the Regional held at Adrian Madison this week, at times dominating Tuesday’s match against Hudson and playing steady against Manchester.
“I think our biggest thing is just being consistent,” Haut said. “That’s what is going to get us to where we want to be.”
The Kestrels have put together an impressive resume to take with them into Tuesday’s Quarterfinal. In late October, O’Brien found an opening at a quad in Marshall where the Kestrels went and beat Marshall, ranked No. 10 in Division 2 at the time, Lake Odessa Lakewood, ranked No. 1 in Division 2, and Harper Creek, to go 3-0 on the day. SMCC also won its 10th consecutive Huron League title earlier this season. Haut and Barron have gone 55-1 in league play over their four-year careers.
SMCC’s only losses this fall were to Division 1 opponents Saline and Ann Arbor Skyline. Skyline, which beat Saline in this year’s District, will be playing in Tuesday’s Quarterfinals as well.
Costlow said the team believes in the Flip the Switch mentality.
“As we get to harder teams, we really need to flip that switch,” she said. “We have before. As we progress in the postseason, we need to get our game up.
“It’s a mental thing. It’s energy. When we bring that energy, we all move together and play as a unit, it's really fun.”
Costlow has worked on a jump float serve this year and is consistently one of the team’s best servers.
“The coaches have really been working with me with my hand contact and staying strong with it and not moving my wrist around,” she said. “I like contacting the ball higher. It floats and is hard to pass when it gets up into the air like that.”
Serving at a high level is important for the SMCC attack.
“Our goal is to serve tough so that their setters have a tough time getting anybody the ball,” O’Brien said.
When they are playing offense, the SMCC hitters seem to never stop coming at teams.
“I will be shocked if they don’t (win Division 3 again),” said Whiteford coach Buffy Ruddy after watching the Bobcats fall to SMCC in the District Final. “They have a great team. They have very good ball control, make very few errors and just have a really good balanced attack. They keep coming at you.”
O’Brien said the SMCC setters do a great job of distributing the ball.
“We have six hitters that can attack the ball,” she said. “We have certain plays called, but the setters do a good job of spreading the ball around. It can come from our middle or the right side. I think it’s a great thing. The opponents have to focus on three attackers every time.”
“That’s one of the reasons we do so well,” Costlow said. “We have so many hitters that can put the ball down. The other team never knows where the ball is going to be set or who’s going to hit. It really messes up the other team.”
After seeing her team get past Manchester, Lipford said the Kestrels want more.
“We didn’t play to our full potential,” she said. “We would have liked it to be more decisive of a win. We need to start quicker, finish and play our game.
“From the very start we have to have that mentality.”
O’Brien is in her sixth year as head coach at SMCC. In 2018 her squad lost to Bronson in the Semifinals. Last year the Kestrels swept through the regular season and tournament, winning the school’s sixth Finals championship, and first under O’Brien, in a five-set thriller over Schoolcraft.
The win over Manchester was another start.
“I think individually we made steps, but as a team we are not there yet,” O’Brien said. “But we’ll be there on Tuesday.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) SMCC’s Mikayla Haut (8) hits against Hudson’s Callie Bauer in their Regional Semifinal. Both Haut and Bauer are Miss Volleyball Award finalists. (Middle) Abbie Costlow (4) swings against Hudson. Costlow is one of seven seniors on the SMCC squad. (Below) The “Flip The Switch” T-shirt. (Action photos by Deloris Clark-Osborne.)