BYRON CENTER – The Byron Center volleyball team switched leagues this season, from the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green to the O-K White.
It’s been a change for the better.
The Bulldogs won conference and District championships last season, then was relocated to a conference that includes perennial state powerhouses Grand Rapids Christian and Lowell, as well as Forest Hills Central.
“This change for our conference was huge,” Byron Center senior libero Abby Boyle said. “Our past conference had some really great competition, but this year it’s really been a step up. It’s really been preparing us for some tougher games, and hopefully it will help us move forward past Districts and past Regionals and really make it far this year.”
Despite the increased level of competition, the Bulldogs have held their own.
They have been ranked as high as No. 2 in Division 1 and are currently 11-2 overall and 4-1 in the conference after suffering a tough five-set loss to top-ranked Grand Rapids Christian on Tuesday.
“It’s been a really good experience playing against the tougher teams,” senior middle hitter Anna Butler said. “When you play the harder teams, you really want to step up your game and you want to play to your highest potential. It has pushed us to be better every practice, and we’ve really improved every match.”
The Bulldogs returned nine players from last year, and the experience has helped the team thrive despite the decrease in games and early outdoor practices due to the current pandemic.
“Overall they’ve played very well, and we’ve competed against some very good teams,” Byron Center coach Katie Vander Meer said. “We beat Lowell, which is one of the top three teams in the state, and our two losses came against Grand Rapids Christian, which finished back-to-back state runner-up and is ranked No. 1. Forest Hills Central is another tough competitor.
“The girls are playing a very high level of volleyball, which is impressive to see with as little volleyball as we’ve played. We’ve only played 13 matches so far in comparison to a normal year where we would have 20-something in by now. I think where we’re at is very good.”
The Bulldogs led 2-1 in their match against Christian, but couldn’t close it out.
Vander Meer said lessons continue to be learned from those narrow defeats.
“I think we did a lot of things very well, but I think the wheels came off a little in the fifth set,” she said. “Obviously we came up short, but I think we are learning a lot from playing a team like that. I think we’re growing from playing a team like that, and I think we’re just going to keep getting better.”
The Bulldogs have been paced by Boyle and Butler, as well as juniors Taylor Humphrey (outside hitter) and Cierra Laska (setter).
Boyle leads the team with 190 digs.
“We have a great defensive foundation between Abby and defensive specialists Amanda Hilliker and Sara Zimmerlee,” Vander Meer said. “Their ability to read hitters and dig balls keeps us in games.”
Humphrey (179 kills) and Butler (102 kills) have provided solid play at the net.
“Offensively, they are our go-to hitters and can put balls away from anywhere on the court,” Vander Meer said. “Not to mention being helpful defensively with their ability to block balls. Marie Baar, Ryen Karel and Makenzi Bennett have stepped up in starting roles and have helped contribute to the front row.”
Laska has emerged as a dual threat for the Bulldogs with 258 assists and 41 kills.
“She has done a great job running our offense as well as being an offensive threat,” Vander Meer said. “Freshman Caroline Baker has also stepped up both defensively and in the setting role to allow more flexibility in our offense.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTO: Byron Center senior libero Abby Boyle has been among catalysts during the team’s 11-2 start. (Photo courtesy of the Byron Center volleyball program.)
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).