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 [email protected] 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.)
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).