Chemistry Super-Charges Valley Lutheran

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

October 14, 2020

Sydney Krause said she and her teammates on the Saginaw Valley Lutheran volleyball team don’t talk much about getting back to Battle Creek for MHSAA Finals weekend.  

Even though it’s clearly the goal, the senior setter said when everyone is together, they’re more focused on the matches directly in front of them and respecting each opponent.  

In private conversations, however? 

“Between me and (senior outside hitter) Peyton (Bartnikowski) for example, we talk about it often,” Krause said. “We want to get back, and we’ll do anything to get back there.” 

A year ago, the Chargers made their first Semifinal appearance, winning their first Regional title since 2011 along the way. A month into this season, they’re looking like a contender to do it again, as they are 19-2 and ranked No. 4 in the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association Division 3 poll.  

“I've always had a lot of talent, and every year I feel like we’re in the running, but last year was the first year that I felt so confident about it that I told the girls, ‘This is what we’re going to do: We’re going to go to the Final Four, and this is how we’re going to do it.’” Valley Lutheran coach Jon Frank said. “This year, I told them we’re going to go to the Final Four, and then some. Hopefully.” 

Frank said it took just one match this fall for him to realize his confidence in the team was well placed, as the Chargers have been able to get off to a flying start. Their two losses on the year came against perennial Division 2 power Pontiac Notre Dame Prep and Birch Run, a team just outside the top 10 in the Division 2 rankings. Valley Lutheran was able to take a set off Notre Dame Prep. 

That fast start is being fueled by strong team chemistry, despite the Chargers losing six seniors from last year’s semifinalist – several of which played a prominent role, including all-state second-team libero Kelsey Vittitow. Eight players from last year’s squad are back, however. 

“The people we have coming back from last year are great players, and they came back even better,” said Bartnikowski, who was an all-state third-team selection a year ago. “Our chemistry was the same as it was last year at the end of the season, and we just picked up where we left off.” 

That chemistry is most visible in the connection between Krause and Bartnikowski, who are entering their third year playing together.  

“I’m so thankful for the chemistry we do have,” Krause said. “I think it honestly came from having so many reps together. We’ve worked a lot in practice, and also in club in the past year. This year, it’s even stronger because we have all those touches together over the club season. We’re friends off the court, so we trust each other a lot.” 

Bartnikowski said their friendship actually started off the court, as they had classes together as freshmen while she was playing on the varsity team and Krause was on JV. As sophomores, the on-court connection began to blossom. 

“I think it’s so important, because that’s what gets you the points,” Bartnikowski said. “If you have a setter and hitter that don’t have that chemistry, you can still get the points, but it’s so helpful to have that chemistry where she can do all types of sets, and I know exactly where each set is going.” 

With the season shortened by a few weeks because of COVID-19, Frank believes that chemistry will be an advantage.  

“It’s huge,” he said. “These kinds of connections come over years, not even seasons. It’s just like anything else, reps matter to build that chemistry. Especially in a short season, for them to have the background reps is huge.” 

Another advantage is the depth in the Valley Lutheran attack this season. While Bartnikowski is the focal point, fellow outside hitter Lexie Peplinski and middle hitters Ashlyn Martin and Olivia Grimpo are keeping defenses honest. It’s also providing Krause with an abundance of options. 

“She has a lot of places to go,” Bartnikowski said. “I think it’s harder (for defenses) than what it is if someone is just setting it outside all the time. It gives us an easier pathway to get a kill. If the other team is just setting up outside, it catches them off guard.” 

With returning defensive specialist-turned-libero Kya Bellil leading the back row, the Chargers are strong front to back, and certainly have the makings of a team that can get back to the Final Four the week before Thanksgiving. 

If they do, they hope the experience gained a year ago can help them take another big step. 

“I think it will be helpful, especially since we have a lot of returners and we’ve all been there,” Krause said. “Last year we were all taking it all in. We were there to play, but it was also a completely new experience. I think it will help us to focus more on the task at hand.” 

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at paulcostanzo3@gmail.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sydney Krause sets up a waiting group of Valley Lutheran attackers this season. (Middle) Middle hitter Ashlyn Martin connects on a spike. (Photos by Sonny Medina.)

After 2021 Runner-Up Finish, North Branch Ends 2022 Back On Top

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

November 19, 2022

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.

The Broncos’ Adrienne Greschaw (1) sets as Cadillac awaits the kill attempt. 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’s Carissa Musta (9) powers a hit toward a North Branch block. 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.

Click for the full box score.

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.