BATTLE CREEK – You could forgive Lillie Laney for not immediately processing what she and her Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart volleyball teammates accomplished Saturday.
In fact, you could forgive anyone who was in Kellogg Arena to watch the Irish comeback in the Division 4 Final for not being quite sure what they just witnessed.
Sacred Heart looked all but done after two sets, but came roaring back to defeat Athens 14-25, 13-25, 25-23, 27-25, 15-11 and claim its first-ever Finals title.
“I can’t even remember what the last point was,” the Sacred Heart senior said. “It’s all just a blur. I just remember us getting the point and everybody dog-piling.”
The last point was an Athens attack that went just long, and as soon as the line judge’s flag went up, the Sacred Heart bench met Laney and her teammates in the center of the court to start the celebration.
Sacred Heart won the match’s final six points, completing a third straight comeback in a must-win set, and finishing off what had seemed improbable about an hour earlier.
“I feel like at the beginning when we were down by a lot, we started getting down on ourselves,” Sacred Heart junior libero Bridget Ruiz said. “In the third set, we kind of were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to pick it up here.’ And we just kind of kept it going and going and going and going.”
The match was the first five-setter of the season for the Irish (44-7-6), who had advanced to the Division 4 Semifinals a year ago.
“That’s the way a state championship match should be,” Irish coach Krista Davis said. “It should be a fight to the end. It should be just a back and forth. I don’t think any team really made mistakes. In my recollection, I just felt like it was who could get the ball and just hit it the hardest. It was pound, pound, pound, pound. That was a good championship match.”
Athens led the majority of the final set, before a Laney block put her team up 12-11. Another block in combination with sophomore setter Sophie Hauck gave the Irish a cushion, and sophomore outside hitter Chelsea Lynch served out the final two points, which ended with Athens attacks going long.
“I always thought it was possible, but that was the final push,” Laney said. “That was the, ‘We gotta go, we gotta get moving. We have this now. It’s in our hands. It’s within reach.’”
Laney finished the match with 19 kills and seven blocks. The 5-foot-10 middle hitter had just two errors on 39 attacks in the match.
Eliza Pieratt had 17 assists and 17 digs for the Irish, while Hauck had 24 assists and four blocks. Ruiz added 29 digs, Angel Brown had 10 kills and 16 digs, and Lynch had 13 digs.
Most of that came over the final three sets, as Athens was dominant to start the match, and looked well on its way to claiming a first Finals title of its own.
Athens’ varied attack with setter Alaina Brubaker feeding hitters Kylie Quist, Kamryn Parlin, Jocelyn Hall and Piper Porter had Sacred Heart reeling through the first two sets.
“I think we started out super strong, and collectively we were playing very, very well,” Athens coach Jacy Cole said. “Then, third set, they started getting the momentum and took that third set. We came back in the fourth set and I thought we did well, just made a few communication errors, I think, that kind of rattled us a little bit. We couldn’t quite get our footing back under us. Fifth set, I think they just were more offensive than we were, and they were very good defensively at the net.”
Quist led the Athens attack with 20 kills, while Hall had 18, Porter had 17 and Parlin had 10. Brubaker finished the day with 56 assists and 19 digs. Parlin had a massive game defensively, as well, adding 23 digs and nine total blocks. The other attackers also chipped in defensively, as Hall had 24 digs, Piper had 18 and Quist had 14.
Athens was playing in a Final for the first time, as it wrapped up a season that featured the program’s first-ever Regional title. Of course, each of the past two years, Athens had lost in the Regional Final to eventual Division 4 champion Battle Creek St. Philip, with their match going to five sets in 2021.
“Right now, our team probably doesn’t feel like it, but we’ve done so much this year together,” Hall said. “It’s one of the best feelings ever, and it’s something that we’re going to remember for a very long time together. All the memories and the history that we’ve made this year with the support of the community right there behind us. They’re a huge part of this. We’re just thankful for everything.”
PHOTOS (Top) Players converge on Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart coach Krista Davis after she receives the Division 4 championship trophy Saturday. (Middle) The Irish’s Lillie Laney (9) follows through on a kill attempt with Athens’ Piper Porter blocking. (Below) Sacred Heart’s Angel Brown (23) puts up a block as the ball reaches the net.