BATTLE CREEK – There’s a good deal of talk that goes around Battle Creek’s volleyball community every fall. And with a significant amount of talent concentrated in such a small area, there’s plenty to say.
Starting in 1979, the last words for a season often have come at Battle Creek’s All-City Tournament.
Battle Creek Central, Lakeview, Pennfield, Harper Creek and St. Philip played in the 34th All-City on Oct. 15 at Pennfield High. All five schools have won the event multiple times, and St. Philip became the latest champion with a 25-22, 25-5 win over Lakeview in this fall’s final.
“It’s a big deal because there are rivalries everywhere,” said Pennfield senior Cassie Pelloni, who played in her fourth and final All-City. “It’s who wants to beat who, and that’s what it comes down to.
“You want to beat the certain teams that have been talking all season.”
A field of five teams from the same town is the basic starting point of this tournament’s charm. Those teams also represent three leagues and three of four state classes. Battle Creek Central and Lakeview are Class A – both with nearly 1,400 students total -- while Harper Creek and Pennfield are B. St. Philip is Class D and has an enrollment of 120.
What adds most to the intrigue is the combined success of Battle Creek’s volleyball teams. Three of the five have won state titles (St. Phil has 16, Pennfield two and Lakeview one), but only 10 of those 19 state championship teams also won the All-City during those respective season. This fall’s tournament included standout individuals like Pelloni, a 6-foot-1 hitter who will sign with Oakland, and returning St. Philip all-staters Amanda McKinzie and Sierra Hubbard-Neil. McKenzie, a 6-0 junior hitter, has committed to sign with Virginia Tech; Hubbard-Neil is a 5-9 sophomore hitter and getting similar college attention.
St. Philip is ranked No. 1 in Class D again and Pennfield is tied for first in the Kalamazoo Valley Association heading into Tuesday’s match against Class C No. 1 Delton Kellogg. Harper Creek is coming off of a Class B district title last season and Lakeview and Central both have won Class A district titles at least once during the last five seasons.
Part of the mystique of Battle Creek volleyball dates directly to the leader for whom the championship trophy is named – former Kellogg Community College coach Mick Haley, who led KCC from 1973-79 and guided the Bruins to junior college national championships in his final two seasons. He then moved on to Texas and then Southern California and has won a combined four NCAA national titles with those schools. He’s in his 11th season at USC.
The All-City has been part of St. Philip coach Vicky Groat’s volleyball seasons going back to her own high school career. She graduated from St. Philip in 1985 and was a senior when the Tigers won the All-City for the first time since 1984. She’s also led St. Philip to six All-City wins as its coach.
“It’s the bragging rights for the year, and a lot of these girls are friends with others on the teams,” Groat said. “Win it, (and) we’re the best in the city. I don’t care what class it is, it’s nice as a player to be able to win one, and as a coach to win a few. And being the only Class D team in the city, it’s kinda nice.”
St. Philip has won the event 11 times – including the last four seasons – followed by Lakeview with eight titles, Pennfield with seven, Central with six and Harper Creek with 2. There’s little secret that these days, St. Philip is the team to beat.
“Oh yeah, we know. We kinda like that. We’re just encouraged to do better,” McKinzie said.
“I feel like it’s a lot different (than other tournaments we play) because we know a little better how everyone plays. We know what we have to do.”
Pennfield d. Central 25-11, 25-7
St. Philip d. Harper Creek 25-17, 25-13
Lakeview d. Harper Creek 25-25, 25-18
St. Philip split with Pennfield 25-18, 24-26
Harper Creek split with Pennfield 25-20, 30-32
Lakeview d. Central 25-11, 25-12
Lakeview d. Pennfield 25-23, 25-23
St. Philip d. Central 25-14, 25-17
Harper Creek d. Central 25-16, 26-24
St. Philip d. Lakeview 25-22, 25-12
St. Philip d. Harper Creek 25-9, 25-8
Lakeview d. Pennfield 25-23, 25-20
St. Philip d. Lakeview 25-22, 25-5
(Top) Fire away: Battle Creek Lakeview’s Lydia Drikakis serves against Battle Creek St. Philip during pool play of this fall’s All-City Tournament at Pennfield High.
(Trophy) Serve it up: The Mick Haley award, named after the former Kellogg Community College and current Southern California coach, is given to the champion of the annual Battle Creek All-City Tournament.
Set it up: Battle Creek Harper Creek’s Megan Gwathney (6) and Lexi Latshaw (9) prepare to hit while teammate Olivia Black (10) readies at the net during a pool play game against Battle Creek Central.
Cadillac’s girls volleyball team is quite accustomed to getting flack from opposing teams’ student sections about their socks.
That’s not likely to continue much longer though, thanks to the Vikings’ performance on the court and major college teams becoming similarly equipped.
And their new warm-up shirts tell it all.
“My team has always worn knee socks,” said 23-year veteran Cadillac coach Michelle Brines. “So people will make fun of the team, or they’ll cheer ‘put your socks down’ and this kind of thing.
“This year we finally got shirts saying ‘Fear the Socks,’” she continued. “The knee socks were in back in the day, and we’ve always worn them.”
Now college powerhouse clubs like Texas and Nebraska wear knee socks. The Cornhuskers just went back to them last season — a year calumniating with an appearance in the national championship match. Nebraska and Texas regularly make runs to and beyond the NCAA Elite Eight.
Under Brines, Cadillac too is used to deep postseason runs including six MHSAA Semifinal appearances. The Vikings made their first appearance in the Division 2 Final last November, falling to North Branch.
Cadillac is off to a 17-3-2 start this fall preparing for Division 1 competition, as they moved into that division for this season. The Vikings haver their sites on another Big North Conference championship too as they prepare for District play in Grand Haven at the end of October. Cadillac is 4-1 in league play.
The Vikings have been led again this year by all-state middle hitter Carissa Musta. The 6-foot-4 senior is handling the pressure well. Teams celebrating a block of Musta’s hit are quickly shaken off, according to Brines.
“It’s got to be tough when somebody gets all crazy because they just blocked you, but Carissa is very composed,” Brines said. “She never comes off the floor.
“She’s pretty darn good in the back row,” Brines continued. “I am very impressed with her growth and composure.”
Musta topped the 1,000-kill mark earlier this season and became the school’s career leader in blocks this week in a three-set win over Petoskey.
Senior Makenzie Johns, a 6-1 outside hitter, is also an offensive powerhouse for the Vikings. Senior setter Cassie Jenema comes through regularly with kills in addition to her strong defense and serving.
“We have 11 players on our team, and they all play an important role,” Brines noted. “Even though we have a few that really, really stand out, we are not going to be successful if we’re not all doing our job.”
The Vikings also regularly feature three sophomores: Ari Bryant, Grace Zubak and Sophia Clough. All three were on the freshman team last year because of the team’s depth.
Cadillac shared the Big North championship last year with Traverse City Central. They both suffered home losses to each other but picked up road wins. That trend has continued this year as Central handed Cadillac its lone league loss in five sets on the Vikings’ court. They will play again Oct. 4 in Traverse City.
Brines is pleased with her team’s progress at midseason. The Vikings host Alpena on Wednesday and then battle in the Portage Invitational.
“I have never had a season moving people around as much as I have,” Brines said. “I expect to see a lot of growth out of my team as we go into the second half of the season.”
Brines hopes the Vikings will make a run to the Final again this fall so she can become accustomed to a new routine.
“We finally broke through and won that (Friday Semifinal) night game and got to play the next day, which had never happened,” Brines recalled. “I didn’t really know what to do because usually I was going out for dinner with my team because we lost.”
The knee socks are the Vikings' signature also at the freshman and junior varsity levels. “We have all of our levels wear them — it is kind of our thing,” Brines pointed out. “When we walk in we have knee socks, people know we’re Cadillac.
“It’s kind of fun,” she continued. “I am old school.”
Crew socks are allowed in practice, however. Brines and the Vikings seriously considered getting away from their long-standing tradition.
“I used to make them wear them in practice,” Brines said. “One of my players that went on to coach some college and be a head coach herself said ‘Coach, you can’t do (stop wearing them) because that’s what you kind of always done and nobody else wears knee socks.’”
A spokesperson for Nebraska said there’s no real reason Nebraska went back to wearing long socks beyond player preference, and that it seems like that trend is coming back in volleyball.
“Very cool,” Brines said with a smile when she learned of the Cornhuskers response. “So basically, we never went out of style.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Cadillac's McKenzie Johns unloads on an attempt during a match. (Middle) Cassie Jenema sets for a teammate during a match. (Below) Ari Bryant keeps the ball in play. (Photos by Marc Vieau/Cadillac News).