BATTLE CREEK – Natasha Bickel had an up-close look the last time North Branch won a Finals volleyball title. As a ball girl, she was able to watch the Broncos take home a championship at Kellogg Arena.
On Saturday, Bickel got to experience being on the court to win one.
“I remember when I was a ball girl one of the years we won states (2016) and one of the years we didn’t,” Bickel, a senior middle hitter, said. “Except for last year, we haven’t really came this far. Coming back here, being in the Finals and winning it? It put the cherry on top.”
Bickel and the Broncos defeated Cadillac 31-29, 25-18, 25-17 in the Division 2 Final. It was the fourth title for the program, and first since 2016.
“We put a lot into this,” Bickel said. “We’ve poured our lives into this sport. It’s really awesome. This was our goal since we were little. As we were going up every year we were pushing for it, and last year we came so, so close to doing it. We added a freshman and she’s amazing, and everybody is healthy this year. It was just really, really awesome.
North Branch was the Division 2 runner-up a year ago, losing to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep in the Final. The Broncos downed the Irish in the Regional Final this year, and didn’t drop a set the rest of the way, sweeping Mount Morris in the Quarterfinal and Grand Rapids South Christian in the Semifinal.
So it may have caught some off guard when Cadillac had some early success Saturday night.
Cadillac had North Branch (53-7) on the ropes quickly, jumping out to a 16-9 lead in the first set and forcing the Broncos to take a pair of timeouts over a five-point span.
Vikings middle hitter Carissa Musta, who stands 6-foot-4, was a major reason for that. She had three straight blocks, four total, and two kills during a 10-point run.
While North Branch scrambled to find a way to hit around her, it struggled to get into its offense, and went down 10 before starting to dig out.
“I just said, keep battling guys, keep battling,” North Branch coach Jim Fish said. “That’s the mark of a good team that they’re not going to give up. We didn’t panic, which was good. That’s a huge comeback.”
When the Broncos did dig out, it led to an epic end of the set. North Branch fought off eight Cadillac set points before finally taking the lead back at 29-28.
Freshman Aubree Deshetsky, who kept the Broncos alive initially with four straight high-pressure serves, had the final three kills of the set to put it away. She had eight kills total in the set.
“Aubree Deshetsky’s a stud,” Fish said. “She’s a stud, she does a lot for our team. We had everybody back, and she forced her way into our lineup. She’s just a great player. She’s going to be heard for the next three years.”
While the first-set defeat could have been a back-breaker for a Cadillac team looking to pull an upset, it did not wilt. The Vikings stood toe-to-toe with the Broncos in the second set, despite playing from behind for nearly all of it.
Cadillac (34-11-4) even tied the set at 18 before Bickel helped North Branch rattle off the final seven points to take it. Bickel had three kills in the final stretch, showing off power and finesse in the process.
The Broncos flexed their muscle in the third set, building a 20-8 lead with eight straight points – seven on Bickel’s serve. Her block then put North Branch a point away, and the match was won on a service error.
“If we could have just gotten one of those set points (in the first set), who knows what would have happened,” Cadillac coach Michelle Brines said. “I was really proud of my team, because I don’t know that people gave us much of a chance at all. And, we just played really tough. We played pretty tough for the first set and a half, then it kind of seemed like we were running out of steam a little bit and they were asserting their will.”
Deshetsky finished with 13 kills and 14 digs for the Broncos, while Clara Gyomory had 12 kills and Bickel had 11. Alana Deshetsky finished with nine kills and 22 digs, Hailey Green had 25 digs and Adrienne Greschaw had 45 assists for the Broncos.
Musta led Cadillac with 16 kills and seven blocks. Brooke Ellens had 23 digs, and Cassie Jenema had 30 assists and 17 digs.
PHOTOS (Top) North Branch celebrates its Division 2 championship Saturday at Kellogg Arena. (Middle) The Broncos’ Adrienne Greschaw (1) sets as Cadillac awaits the kill attempt. (Below) Cadillac’s Carissa Musta (9) powers a hit toward a North Branch block.
BATTLE CREEK – The message in the Pewamo-Westphalia huddle Saturday following a dropped third set was to get back to having fun.
The Pirates had been at their best all season while playing loose, and in the Division 3 Final with Kalamazoo Christian pulling to within a set, they didn’t want to let the pressure get to them.
Then Kellogg Arena provided an assist.
“Our team has a tradition of the ‘Cupid Shuffle,’” senior outside hitter Dani Pohl said. “It’s always on our playlist, and we always drop anything to dance to it. So, before the song came on we were just like, ‘We need to play loose. We play our best when we have fun.’ Then that song came on and we were like, ‘OK. This is our song. This is our set. We’re going to win this thing in four. We’re going to play loose and have fun. I honestly think the dance break just loosened everybody up. We knew what we needed to do, and we just went out there and did it.”
Pewamo-Westphalia shuffled its way to a 25-17 win in the fourth set, closing out a 25-17, 25-23, 23-25, 25-17 victory and the program’s first Finals title.
“The feeling really hasn’t set in yet,” said Pirates junior Taylor Smith, who had the match-winning ace. “It doesn’t really feel like we just did that. I think it’s really important for all of us, because not only did we do it for ourselves, we did it for our entire community. Everybody has been looking forward to this. We did something big, and it’s going to last us forever.”
Pewamo-Westphalia has had plenty of success as an athletic department. But this trip to the Finals was the volleyball program’s first since a runner-up finish in 1994.
“The popularity of our sport right now, there’s been a lot of success over the eight years that I’ve been here, and the amount of kids we have coming out to play the sport right now is just humongous,” Pewamo-Westphalia coach Jon Thelen said. “Every time we are successful in something, more kids seem to show up out of nowhere. This is just a great way to keep the community growing and loving the sport. I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot more state titles ahead of this program.”
To get title No. 1, the Pirates had to hold off a scrappy Kalamazoo Christian team that didn’t blink when it went down two sets in its first Final since 1976.
The Comets battled through the third set, and built a 15-11 lead after a pair of kills from junior outside hitter Holland DeVries.
Pewamo-Westphalia (46-2-2) erased the deficit and eventually held a 20-18 lead before a back-and-forth finish tightened up the match at two sets to one. On Friday, Kalamazoo Christian had found itself in a similar position, going down two sets before coming all the way back to defeat Calumet in the Semifinal.
“I think I said those exact words, ‘We were right here yesterday,’” Kalamazoo Christian coach Carlie Southland said. “‘If we can come back like we did yesterday, we can come back like that today.’”
Of course, that wasn’t to be, as Pewamo-Westphalia took control of the fourth set relatively early, and built a 20-11 lead before eventually closing it out with Smith’s ace.
“I’m just proud of this group,” Thelen said. “We really battled all season, and it’s one of those things that started last year. I just kind of had this feeling going through the summer of what we were going to be able to do this year. I knew we were going to be very good, but how good, we just proved it today against a very good team.”
Saige Martin led the Pewamo-Westphalia attack with 13 kills, while adding 12 digs and three blocks. Pohl added 10 kills and 15 digs, while Smith had 36 assists and 11 digs. Sierra Schneider led the front line defensively for the Pirates with five blocks.
DeVries led Kalamazoo Christian with 17 kills and 16 digs. Marissa Fetterley added 11 kills and four blocks, while Makenna Ekkens and Hope Krichke each had 12 digs. Lola Stecker had 38 assists for the Comets (38-6-3).
PHOTOS (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia celebrates its Division 3 championship Saturday at Kellogg Arena. (Middle) The Pirates’ Sierra Schneider (12) winds up to hit with Kalamazoo Christian’s Marisa Fetterley (15) putting up a block. (Below) P-W’s Dani Pohl makes contact on a kill attempt.