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.)
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 have their sights 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).