MONROE – After leading the Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central volleyball team into the Division 3 championship match last season, coach Cassie Haut had to apply for the Kestrels coaching job.
That’s because when SMCC reached the Finals in 2021, Haut was officially the co-head coach with Karen O’Brien.
“Oh, yeah, I had to go through the interview process and everything,” Haut said. “I met with the athletic director and other school officials. I was excited when I got the job.”
Haut certainly earned it.
SMCC officially billed Haut and O’Brien as co-head coaches when the 2021 season began. Haut was in charge of the team’s day-to-day activities and O’Brien – who led SMCC to Division 3 Finals titles in 2019 and 2020 – would help out as often as possible after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the fourth time.
O’Brien ended up being around the program often, including during the Kestrels’ postseason run.
When the season ended, however, O’Brien stepped aside, paving the way for a new coach to lead the ultra-successful SMCC program that has reached 10 Finals since 2003, and won seven of them.
Haut doesn’t feel added pressure as the next SMCC coach to maintain that level of success.
“I love it,” she said. “I’m honored to be able to be part of this legacy.”
Haut played basketball, softball and volleyball at SMCC and was part of two championship volleyball teams – in Class C in 2012 and 2014 – under head coach Diane Tuller. The 2015 SMCC grad also had an outstanding career at Eastern Michigan University, earning all-freshman team honors for the Mid-American Conference and twice being named first team all-MAC. In 2018 she was named the MAC Tournament MVP.
Soon after Haut’s college graduation, O’Brien – who was an SMCC assistant during Haut’s high school senior year – called her and asked if she wanted to be part of the program now as a coach.
“It was something that I always thought of doing,” Haut said. “After graduating, I remember thinking ‘What’s next?’ Coaching was something I felt I wanted to do. It helps keeps me part of the game that I love.”
SMCC graduated several seniors from the 2020 championship squad and had to do some rebuilding in 2021. O’Brien was there to put together some of the pieces, then helped mentor Haut as she guided the team through much of its 36-12 run. During the MHSAA Tournament run, O’Brien would funnel postgame questions to Haut, preferring to stay out of the limelight.
It was still, however, a dual coaching role until Haut took over the job.
“I was building up practice plans and ideas for the season just in case I was hired,” Haut said. “I had some things in my mind that I wanted to do. It’s nothing too crazy, but I just added my own touches.
Last year, for example, it was O’Brien who organized summer practices and helped build the regular-season schedule.
“I missed out on those parts of it, so it was something I was looking forward to this year,” Haut said. “It was exciting. We’re still in the same great tournaments that SMCC loves to go to.”
Haut is meshing the experiences she had as a player and coach to form her own coaching style and program.
“All of the coaches I’ve played for and coached with have a slightly different idea of the game,” she said. “The game has evolved in different ways. As I have gone through high school and college as a player, I felt like I learned more depth to the game every year. Then, since I’ve been coaching, I feel like it’s gone to another level.”
Before this season started, Haut had her players write down their goals.
“I want to learn everything I can about the girls,” she said. “It’s not just about volleyball, but life. My college coach really believed that. I’m excited to be part of these girls’ lives.”
Haut comes from an athletic family and has been around sports all her life.
Her father Chris played baseball at the University of Toledo. Her sister Mikayla was a four-time all-state volleyball player and Miss Volleyball finalist, and is coming off a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Rookie of the Year award at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Sister Maddie earned all-conference honors and helped Ave Maria University win its conference title a year ago. Brother CJ was an outstanding basketball player for the Air Force Academy.
SMCC is primed for more success this year. Haut welcomes back a solid senior group that has already showed off its leadership skills. The Kestrels will be among favorites as they seek to make a fourth-straight trip to Battle Creek.
“From the time we got into the gym, they have been leaders,” Haut said.
Two freshmen played key roles a year ago, McKenna Payne and Jessica Costlow. Payne rang up 465 kills, 360 digs and 86 aces during her ninth-grade season while Costlow had 414 kills, 275 digs and 59 blocks.
Last year, SMCC lost in the Division 3 Final to Reese. After taking a 2-0 lead in the match, the Kestrels dropped the final three games 25-15, 25-21, 16-14.
“I like a lot of what I saw in the scrimmage. It was good to get some different lineups together, and we have a deep bench,” Haut said. “I see a ton of potential with this team.”
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 DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Cassie Haut, middle, talks with her Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central team last season as co-varsity coach with Karen O’Brien, right. (Middle) Haut signals to her teammates while starring at Eastern Michigan. (Top photo by Tom Hawley. Middle photo courtesy of the EMU athletic department.)
BLOOMFIELD HILLS – Mayssa Cook said she had a suggestion for then 11-year-old Ava Sarafa upon first seeing Sarafa training on a volleyball court.
Cook knew Sarafa already had the tools to be an elite volleyball player, given her height and skills, but put a figurative bug in her ear while watching Sarafa go from doing hitting drills to setting.
“At the time she was a hitter,” Cook said. “After she set a few balls, we just kind of had a conversation that, ‘you should maybe take setting more seriously.’ Obviously from that point on, she did.”
Now a senior for annual state powerhouse Bloomfield Hills Marian, Sarafa is more than just the latest Miss Volleyball Award finalist and future Division I college player to come through the program.
Taking it further, even a program like Marian’s hasn’t quite seen a setter like Sarafa.
Earlier this season, Sarafa surpassed 4,000 assists for her career to become the 16th player in state history to eclipse that mark.
As of Tuesday, Sarafa had a little more than 4,300 career assists and said she has a goal of eclipsing the 5,000 mark, although the state record of 5,790 set by Novi’s Erin O’Leary might be out of reach.
Sarafa was the main distributor for Marian’s Division 1 championship-winning team last year and next month plans to officially sign to play in college for Kentucky.
Cook said Sarafa’s high school career got going right away when she pulled off the rare feat of cracking the starting lineup as a freshman.
“Very few setters really start their freshman year on varsity and play the entire time,” said Cook, who is in her fifth season as Marian’s head coach. “Ava had a composure and a maturity about her as a freshman, and with skills to back it up, that allowed her to be able to take on that role, and do it very well. Four years later, she’s been that much better every year.”
After taking to heart the suggestion to become a setter, Sarafa said it did take a few months to adjust to the nuances of the position.
However, it didn’t take her long at all to fall in love with it.
“I think the thing I really love about being a setter is being able to help benefit your teammates and put them in a really good spot to score,” Sarafa said. “Also being able to touch the ball every single play. It keeps you very involved in the momentum of the sport, and being able to run the court and know what’s going on with everyone. Being able to know your hitters personally (and) what they appreciate on the court has really touched me in a way. Having that control, pressure and insight on the game made me love it.”
Sarafa also embraces the strategic thinking and anticipation required to be a setter, which differs greatly from the demands of being a hitter or a libero.
“Setting, you need to look with peripheral vision, you need to learn where the blockers are and if they are jumping with your hitters,” Sarafa said. “I think it does (require) excess training to develop and work on.”
Marian is the two-time reigning champion in Division 1 and up to 27-0 this fall as naturally the heavy favorite to make it a three-peat come November. Sarafa actually is one of two Miss Volleyball candidates on the roster; Ella Schomer also is in the mix for the award given to the state's top senior.
Sarafa admitted it’s been a bit different going for three championships in a row with the huge target on Marian’s back, especially since the Mustangs as of Sept. 22 were ranked No. 4 nationally in the USA Today/American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Super 25.
“We need everyone to give 100-percent effort to succeed,” Sarafa said. “It’s not dependent on one person. It depends on everyone giving in to what we’re doing. When the playoffs start, we’re going to see teams that are very competitive and have a lot of great talent on their teams. Everyone just needs to realize that ‘this is it; what you’re doing right now matters.’ It’s just a big team effort, and we need to work for it.”
With one of the country’s top prep setters on Marian’s side once again, it will take one talented team to prevent a three-peat for the Mustangs.
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Marian’s Ava Sarafa prepares to serve during last season’s Division 1 Final against Ann Arbor Skyline. (Middle) Sarafa, far right, celebrates a point with her teammates during the championship match win.