By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – Alexa Ratkowski wears jersey number 1, and so she was first through the hug line as Bronson accepted its Class C championship medals Saturday at Kellogg Arena.
She had a smile across her face until she hugged coach Jean LaClair and the first tears fell. Every teammate following her seemed to drop a few more.
Bronson often wasn’t the tallest or most physically intimidating team on the volleyball court this season, and especially the last few weeks. The Vikings even had to make up for graduating an all-state hitter this spring.
But they had other ingredients that make an MHSAA champion – most notably chemistry to go with a skillful mix of seniors through freshmen and an all-state setter like Ratkowski, who had 34 assists plus six kills in leading Bronson to a 3-0 sweep of reigning champion Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central – 25-22, 25-21, 26-24 – for its first title since 2009.
“Working together and just building with one another; all summer this is what we’d look forward to,” said Ratkowski, who ended this season with the third-most assists in MHSAA rally scoring history. “Playing throughout the season, we knew we were number one. But rankings didn’t mean it. It all came down to the state title and how we performed, and I think we performed to our ability.”
The Vikings did indeed hold the top ranking in Class C for the final two months of the season, finished 57-10-3 and added a league title after not winning their conference or making it out of their District a year ago for the first time since the winter 2006-07 season.
It was about a month into this fall that LaClair – who has coached at three schools over 22 seasons and went over 1,000 career wins in October – saw the makings of a championship contender.
“Early on in the season I think they were frustrated. But we have some freshmen, sophomores playing key roles, and it really took them some time to get into the mold of what varsity volleyball is all about,” LaClair said. “They get along so well. In girls sports, team chemistry is more important than anything else.
"The other thing, I think, is we have a lot of depth. I had some kids who came off the bench today to do some great things for us. That ability to go through 10 or 12 deep really helps in a big match like this.”
It definitely helped during Saturday’s first set as Bronson got down by as many as nine points. Senior outside hitter Kirin Cekander – who LaClair calls the team’s “energizer bunny” – admittedly got off to a rough start. But some switches helped the Vikings pull together a 21-9 swing to win the first set – with Cekander getting kills for two of the final four points.
“The first game just set the stage in all of us,” Ratkowski said. “We were down by eight, and we said this is not it. We’re not letting down.”
Bronson trailed again by two points midway through the second set, but broke away for the final four points, including a pair of kills by sophomore outside hitter Kiana Mayer.
The teams were tied 24-24 in the third set before junior Jill Pyles and then Cekander drove the final points home.
“All the sets were close. It was different for us; we had leads. Maybe that was the difference – we had too many leads in each set,” SMCC coach Karen O’Brien said. “We just couldn’t finish them. We just couldn’t put them away. A couple points here, a couple points there really was the difference.”
Cekander finished with 11 kills and Pyles had nine, but Mayer added eight and junior Allison Sikorski added seven. Cekander also had a team-high 15 digs.
“We have a lot of people who can come off the bench and play like they’ve been playing the whole game,” Cekander said. “We have a lot of people practicing in different places, so we have four outside hitters and a lot of people who can hit back and a lot of middles. We have a really good, flexible team.”
Senior Skylar Iott led three Kestrels in double-figure kills with 15, while seniors Regan Hodgson and Nicole Pollzzie both added 10. Senior Abby Thompson had 15 digs.
St. Mary (37-9-1) played in its eighth MHSAA Final but first with former assistant and Division I college head coach O’Brien running the program. She inherited a strong group of seniors she and retired coach Diane Tuller nurtured last season who then came up big this fall.
“After last year, losing as many seniors that contributed a lot, our seniors stepped up this year,” O’Brien said. “Skylar, Nicole, Regan, Abby and then Rose (Kemmerling) – Rose was our manager last year. You go from manager to being setter in the state finals. I think that just says a lot about her character.”
PHOTO: (Top) Bronson’s Kirin Cekander tries to drive the ball through the block of Merina Poupard (15) and Nicole Pollzzie. (Middle) SMCC’s Skylar Iott goes for a kill with Bronson’s Kiana Mayer (10) and Jill Pyles blocking.
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).