Block, Spike, Set: Phillips Does it All

September 15, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – Juliana Phillips is diversifying her game on the volleyball court this season.

The 6-foot-4 Traverse City St. Francis senior, one of the top players in the state, is now setting for the Gladiators in addition to her featured roles as an outside hitter and middle blocker.

A year ago, Phillips registered 441 kills and 135 blocks in earning all-state honors and helping the Gladiators reach the MHSAA Class C Semifinals.

Over the summer, though, coach Rita Jones devised a plan to use Phillips as a setter when she’s in the back row.

“Setter is one of the most mentally demanding positions on the court,” Jones said. “If you’re mentally aware and mentally smart, it’s a huge advantage – and Juliana is playing that to her advantage this season. I think it’s making her a more well-rounded player.”

Phillips admitted she was surprised when Jones first suggested the move. She had never set previously.

“I thought she was joking,” Phillips said. “Then at our first (summer) scrimmage she ran me out there to set and I thought, ‘OK, here it goes.’

“Now I think it’s pretty cool. I like it. It’s a different aspect of the game. It’s interesting for me because I’ve always been a hitter, and now I get to see the other side of it.”

Jones said she had nothing to lose by asking Phillips to take on a new role.

“I thought if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” she said. “But it’s definitely worth a shot.”

Phillips is one of two primary setters on the team. Junior Meghan Rysztak is also new to the position. The Gladiators lost senior setter Alayna Anderson to a torn knee ligament on the first day of tryouts. Rysztak had 14 assists and Phillips seven – to go along with 12 kills and three blocks – in Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Charlevoix.

“Juliana is level-headed, very humble and such a team player – that’s what makes us most proud,” Lori Phillips, Juliana’s mother, said. “When she moved into the setter role she said, ‘I’m going to do what the team needs me to do, and whatever is going to make us better.’ It’s incredible she’s getting this opportunity because it’s teaching her such a different facet of the game.”

Phillips, a 3.8 student, has also moved into a leadership role on the team. The Gladiators had a strong senior leader a year ago in Madeline Rysztak.

“She’s a good leader,” said Meghan Rysztak, Madeline’s sister, of Phillips. “She knows when we can have fun and try different plays, but she also knows when it’s time to get serious, time to buckle down and start pushing some points.”

Phillips said her job is easier because of the team chemistry.

“What’s great about our team is that we know we’re always going to be friends off the court,” she said. “So at practice we push each other, hold each other accountable and just try to make each other better.”

Phillips is one of just two seniors playing this season. St. Francis, ranked No. 4 in this week’s coaches poll, is off to a 16-5 start. Two of the losses were to Class A Caledonia, an honorable mention pick this week. The Gladiators also fell to defending Class C champion Bronson, now ranked No. 2; Kalamazoo Christian, ranked No. 3 in Class C; and defending Class D champion Leland.

With a young lineup, the Gladiators are a work in progress.

“We’re asking a little bit more from our underclassmen, and they’re doing awesome,” Phillips said. “They’ve improved so much, so that’s good to see.

“It’s great that we played those (tough) teams early because it’s important for every team to know how much they can handle and how they can adjust to that kind of pressure and level of play. That’s been good for us. We’re just trying to learn and grow every day.”

Phillips committed to St. Louis University for volleyball after last season.

“Her upside is really big,” St. Francis basketball coach Keith Haske said. “I don’t think she’s anywhere near where she’s going to be in three years.”

A two-sport star, Phillips was instrumental last winter as the Gladiators reached the MHSAA Class C basketball championship game.

“She’s a Division I basketball player if she wants to be,” Haske said. “She’s athletic, and she’s skilled. She can shoot the 3, she can handle the ball, she’s a good passer, she blocks shots.”

Basketball roots run deep in the Phillips household. Lori (McClusky) is the all-time leading scorer at Gaylord St. Mary (1,555 points). She played collegiately at Colorado State and Central Michigan University. Juliana’s brother, Noah, averaged 19.8 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Gladiators his senior season. He went on to Ave Maria University before transferring to Grand Valley State University, where he’ll be eligible this winter.

Juliana, who has been playing basketball since kindergarten, always figured that would be her sport. But as a freshman she was called up to varsity for volleyball – and her passion for the game took off.

“I got more involved with it, started doing the club scene,” she said. “I fell in love with it. It was something new and something I thought I was pretty good at.”

“Honestly, I thought basketball was the sport she was going to play (in college),” Lori said. “It wasn’t until after her freshman year that she came to the conclusion that she wanted to pursue volleyball. It probably broke our hearts a little because we didn’t know volleyball very well. We’ve always been a basketball family. We didn’t realize what an incredibly fun game volleyball is to watch and be a part of. It’s been quite a ride and education.”

Before the start of her junior season in basketball, Phillips met with Haske, who had just taken over the girls program. He wanted to know if she was firm in her decision to play volleyball in college.

“I said you know we’re going to play a couple games and people (college coaches) are going to start saying, ‘We’ve got to get her,’” Haske said. “I told her I need to know because you don’t want those people to waste their time.”

Phillips didn’t waver. She told Haske she was going to commit to St. Louis.

Phillips had actually already received recruiting interest from colleges for basketball, St. Louis included. Phillips called the coaches to thank them for their interest and to inform them she was pursuing volleyball.

Soon afterward, Phillips was playing in a volleyball tournament in Grand Rapids, Lori recalled, and a St. Louis coach was there to watch.

“The (St. Louis) basketball coach had called the volleyball coach and said, ‘You better jump on this girl,’” Lori said.

The 17-year-old Phillips visited St. Louis twice, as well as several other schools.

“My mom went through this (recruiting) and she said you want to go on as many visits as you can to see what you like and don’t like,” Phillips said. “I knew the instant I got on the St. Louis campus that was the perfect match for me. I can’t help but smile when I think about it because I love that school so much – the campus, the coaches, the players.”

Lori also imparted some other words of wisdom on her daughter.

“I was always taught to use what God gave you,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing. Work hard, have fun and good things will happen. I always try to make sure she focuses on that. There are so many incredible lessons we learn through sports – not just the wins and losses, and the points, but teamwork and leadership.”

Phillips, who plans to go into the nursing program at St. Louis, will also be in a leadership role on the Gladiators’ basketball team, which will be strong again.

“She’s excited about it,” Haske said. “She’s a great team, chemistry person. She has no ego about her.”

Ironically, the Gladiators play at Gaylord St. Mary – her mother’s former school – early in the season.

But, for now, volleyball is her main concern.

“Obviously, we have high goals,” Phillips said. “Last season was incredible (with the trip to the Final Four at Kellogg Center), but it was not how we wanted to finish. It happens and it’s OK, but hopefully we can get back there this year.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) Juliana Phillips makes a block during Saturday's Traverse City Central Invitational. (Middle top) Phillips sets up a teammate for a spike during the Central event. (Middle below) Phillips wins the tip-off at last season's Class C Basketball Final. (Below) Phillips celebrates during the Charlevoix win this week. (Top two photos by Rick Sack/TC Rick Photo, bottom photo by Julie English.)

JoBurg 3-Sport Great Capping Career Filled with All-State Honors, Team Trophies

By Tom Spencer
Special for

April 5, 2024

It won’t be hard for Jayden Marlatt to remember opening day on the softball field from any of her four years at Johannesburg-Lewiston.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAs a freshman, she missed the opener due to needing to quarantine. Her sophomore and junior years started on the road because the Cardinals’ field was under construction.  

This season the Cardinals will open up — weather permitting — on their brand-new field, hosting Mio on Monday, April 8.  Marlatt is slated to be the starting pitcher again and add to her school record collection.

While Johannesburg-Lewiston is looking forward to playing on the new diamond, Marlatt and her teammates have high hopes of finishing the season almost 200 miles south. They’re looking to get back to Michigan State University – the site of the Division 4 Semifinals and Final.

The Cards have had their sites on that goal since they fell 4-2 to Mendon in last year’s Semifinal at Secchia Stadium. The loss ended a 30-4-1 campaign that saw the Cardinals play every game on the road for a second consecutive year, but come up only one victory short of a first championship game appearance.

The trip to East Lansing also came after the Cards won the program’s first District title since 2008 and advanced to the Semifinals for the first time since 1981.

“It has been a long two seasons on the road,” said eighth-year head coach Kim Marlatt, noting the team utilized a Little League field for practices during the stretch. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, so it is excited to get going.”

Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. The new field isn’t the only new things this spring. The Cardinals will have a junior varsity team for the first time during the Marlatt’s tenure. The JV squad is coached by Ryan Marlatt, who has been serving the program the past eight years as assistant coach. He also has been the head girls basketball coach at JoBurg the past two seasons.

The Marlatt coaches are the proud parents of Jayden, who continues to garner recognition as perhaps the greatest athlete in Johannesburg-Lewiston’s history. 

The three-sport star had a huge hand in all that JoBurg accomplished last season leading the team in batting average (.670), home runs (13) and runs batted in (61). As the team’s ace pitcher, she collected 249 strikeouts and compiled a 1.32 ERA.

“Jayden has put in the hard work,” Kim pointed out.  “She is a very humble athlete. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about herself. She likes to compete, and she likes to be on the top of her game for her teammates.”

Jayden has been named all-conference and all-state in softball, basketball and volleyball nearly every season over her four years at JoBurg. She’s led her teams to Ski Valley Conference, District and Regional titles along the way.

She’s also been named Player of the Year by multiple publications. And she’s a front runner to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the Ski Valley Conference in softball. Earlier this year, league coaches voted her the MVP for both basketball and volleyball.  

“The Ski Valley never used to vote on an MVP,” Ryan Marlatt said. “Hopefully she can add the triple crown and get softball this year.”

Jayden Marlatt, who has played all three sports all four years, acknowledged softball is perhaps her most treasured, and she’ll continue in that sport at Ferris State. Her career total of more than 500 strikeouts, and her 14 home runs last season, are both JoBurg school records. "I like them all but probably softball,” she confirmed when asked to name her favorite sport.

She averaged 12 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and four steals per game this winter helping the Cards basketball team to a conference runner-up finish. She was key to JoBurg's ability to put a 12-game winning streak together, and she topped the 1,000-point career mark along the way.

Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season.Her outstanding senior year on the basketball court and this spring’s possibilities nearly vanished as the volleyball season ended.

She suffered what looked to be a serious lower-leg injury in the final game of the JoBurg volleyball season. “She finished in the emergency room,” Kim Marlatt said.  

Diagnosed a high ankle sprain, it was an aggravation to an injury from her junior year in basketball. She wasn’t quite at 100 percent on the basketball court this season until the holiday break. She’s starting the softball season healthy, though.

Before the injury, Jayden led the Cards to their third volleyball conference championship over the last four years. After becoming JoBurg's all-time kills leader during her junior season, and with many of her teammates from her first three seasons graduating, Jayden had to fill a variety of roles while anchoring the offense from her outside hitter spot.

She ended up leading the team in both kills with 421 and digs, with 431, in her final season on the volleyball court. And she is listed among MHSAA’s all-time leaders in kills for a single match and career.

It’s more than Marlatt’s stats that stand out for Kristine Peppin, the school’s volleyball coach the past 15 years.

“It is not about the size of the school or the size of the player, it’s the heart that they have inside,” she proclaimed. “This girl would be a successful player on whatever team she was on. 

“Yes we’re a small school, small town,” she continued. “That kind of leadership and heart and drive to be the best is what’s given her that success.”

Marlatt’s work ethic is second to none, Peppin noted. She never saw Jayden give less than a “1,000” percent in practice or games in her career. 

Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt.“She’s a super hard worker and extremely modest for the kind of skill she possesses and the success she’s had,” Peppin said. “Her teammates think it’s amazing to be on her team.”

Marlatt’s volleyball skills caught the eye of at least one of her conference opponents’ coaches back in junior high. Ron Stremlow was performing one of his many coaching duties for Fife Lake Forest Area when he first saw Jayden on the volleyball court.

“I could tell then this girl was somebody special,” said Stremlow, who became one of the winningest coaches in state volleyball history with the Warriors. “When she got in high school, it just took off.

“She puts the time into it, and she works hard,” Stremlow continued. “Kids like that get what they deserve – they work for it.”

Stremlow, now retired, also acknowledged he’s enjoyed being able to watch the hard-throwing Marlatt on the softball field the last couple of seasons as Forest Area hosted the Cardinals consecutively due to JoBurg’s lack of a home field.

It’s something he’ll have to travel to do this year though, as JoBurg is scheduled to host the Warriors on April 15.

The Cardinals also will host a Regional on their new field June 8. The winners of District play at Rogers City, Harbor Springs, St. Ignace and Gaylord St. Mary will participate.

To play in the Regional, the Cards will have to emerge from the Rogers City District featuring the host Hurons, Atlanta, Hillman, Onaway, and Posen.

Tom SpencerTom 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) Johannesburg-Lewiston’s Jayden Marlatt drives a pitch during softball season. (2) Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. (3) Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season. (4) Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt. (Action shots by Dylan Jespersen/Petoskey News-Review; family photo by Breya Domke.)