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@example.com 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.)
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.