Coach Inspires 'Attack' as Team Surges On

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

November 3, 2016

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

When the going gets tough for the Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central volleyball team, all the players have to do is look over to the bench to see a symbol of strength and courage and the will to fight and never give up.

Second-year head coach Karen O'Brien is battling ovarian cancer for the second time in less than two years. She first was diagnosed in February of 2015. The disease went into remission that summer, and she was declared cancer-free – but it returned this summer. She completed her six rounds of chemotherapy treatments last week, which turned out to be good timing with the District tournament beginning for her team Tuesday.

“I'm getting there,” she said. “I still have my tired days.”

St. Mary Catholic Central entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the Class C state poll, and it is led by senior hitters Merina Poupard and Leah Ritchie and junior setter Lauren Kemmerling.

The Kestrels have won five MHSAA championships since 2003, and the last three came in the past three even-numbered years (2010, 2012, 2014). That is a good sign for 2016, and good omens are welcome – but not taken as anything that is a given.

“We're going to take one day at a time,” O'Brien said. “That is what the cancer has also taught me. One day at a time. It doesn't matter where you are ranked in September or October; it's where you are November 19th.”

Initial diagnosis

St. Mary Catholic Central won all five of its MHSAA titles under coach Diane Tuller, who retired after the 2014 season. O'Brien, an assistant in 2014, took over as head coach in 2015 and praised Tuller for making it a smooth transition.

“I'm very grateful to Diane Tuller for giving me the opportunity to be her assistant in 2014 and showing me the ropes of the Huron League and also of the state tournament,” O'Brien said. “Winning the state title in her last year and her allowing me to continue the tradition that she has started there has been amazing.”

It also has been challenging because of the news she received in February of 2015. But after being declared cancer-free that summer, she had hopes of a smoother 2016. It didn't happen, and the return of the cancer made O'Brien reflect on exactly what she wanted to do and not do.

“When I was diagnosed in July, I sat down with my husband and said, ‘OK, option one is to stop coaching. Option two is to find somebody that wants to take over as head coach, and I would be the assistant. Option three is stay the head coach and find somebody that wants to be my assistant.’

“I really felt option 3 was the best for me so that I had something to look forward to.”

O'Brien turned to junior varsity head coach Lindsay Notario to be a co-coach. It was a fine match as Notario had been the JV coach for several years and knew the players well.

“I was nervous,” Notario said. “I had never been on varsity before, but I knew she wouldn't just leave me hanging. She hasn't missed too much time, and she has really been there for most of the season, so it's been nice that she hasn't missed out on a whole lot.

“Her mind is always on the team. When she does miss, she will call and give me this idea or that idea or a lineup we can work on. She is always coaching me through it, too.”

O'Brien then had to explain the changes to her players.

“I had told them this summer that we were making some coaching changes,” she said. “Lindsay was familiar with the JV kids who would then be on varsity, and I pretty much told them, 'My cancer is back, and I have to go through six rounds of treatment.

“I'll have my good days and bad days, and I will miss some days, but I'll be here all the time that I can.”

O'Brien has been involved in volleyball and sports in general for more than 30 years. She has a full and impressive resume. She is a 1981 graduate of Livonia Stevenson High School and was the first female athlete in school history to earn nine varsity letters (volleyball, basketball and track), and she was first-team all-state in volleyball in 1981.

In college, O'Brien played at Schoolcraft Community College before moving on to the University of Georgia, where she made the all-Southeastern Conference team in 1983 and 1984. She has been head coach at Dundee High School, the University of Toledo and Siena Heights University, and she was an assistant at Eastern Michigan University before coming to St. Mary Catholic Central.

She also is a businesswoman. She owns two Subway stores, one in Dundee and the other in Monroe. All of that has helped give her an escape from her daily battle with ovarian cancer, and her background in athletics has given her a fighting attitude when faced with adversity.

“I think as an athlete, some adversity hits you and you right away go into warrior mode to do whatever it takes to survive and get through this,” she said. “Being an athlete, you are more organized, which definitely helps also.”

Fighting back with Teal Attack

As if keeping a positive attitude and enduring the energy-sapping treatments wasn't enough, O'Brien launched an all-out assault on ovarian cancer. Teal is the official color of ovarian cancer awareness, and she started a “teal attack” in the region.

“After my first round of chemo in 2015, it was like, 'OK, what can I do?'” she said. “I knew one person with ovarian cancer.

“I didn't know the signs and symptoms and didn't know what to look for. I was not well-educated, and I wanted to use athletics as a way to bring awareness and raise funds for ovarian cancer, so teal attack started. Basically in 14 months we've raised about $80,000 at sporting events.”

In that time, more than 40 sporting events have been teal attack games, where T-shirts are worn and sold, donations are accepted and the word is spread about the signs and symptoms. Spreading the word is just as important as the funds to O'Brien.

“Everybody thinks that ovarian cancer is an old lady's disease, and it's not,” said O'Brien, who, at 53, is far from an old lady. Neither was 8-year-old Mariel Almendras of Ann Arbor, who at age 5 was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2008 and died three years later. 

“It's just about educating, and I have become much more educated in the last year and a half,” O’Brien said. “It is what teal attack is all about, teaching women about the symptoms.

“The outpouring just in Monroe County has been unbelievable. Monroe High School, Bedford, Ida, we had a huge golf outing in Dundee that raised $15,000 on its own.”

As co-coach, Notario has seen a lot of teal attack up close.

“Teal attack has been amazing,” she said. “She alone brought awareness to the whole county of Monroe, and at every game she is always going over and talking to coaches and trying to spread awareness.

“Every day of September, she would wear something teal as it was ovarian cancer awareness month. People would mention that they liked the color of her shirt, and she would say it was about ovarian cancer awareness and make them aware.”

O'Brien teamed with the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance (MIOCA), and there is a link to all the teal attack events on the web page – – along with a way to donate. Her dedication to the fight against ovarian cancer while fighting it herself has impressed many around her.

“It has been phenomenal,” said Chad Myers, athletic director and dean of students at St. Mary Catholic Central. “Her thing is to try to make more awareness about it and do the best that she can possibly do.

“On top of that, she has so much passion for teaching these girls and teaching volleyball. When you think you are having a bad day and then you go into the gym and see her pushing the girls and giving it everything that she has, (it) puts things in perspective. The girls are very excited to see her come back and coach.”

The next step

With the conclusion of the treatments, O'Brien can focus on St. Mary Catholic Central's drive for its sixth championship. But she doesn't want any “Win one for Coach” attitudes.

“They see me on my good days, and I think part of the way through the season they wanted to play for me, and I told them they need to play for themselves,” she said.

St. Mary Catholic Central opened the District tournament Tuesday with a three-set victory over Britton-Deerfield. The Kestrels downed Blissfield in a Semifinal on Thursday and will face host Ottawa Lake Whiteford at 10 a.m. Saturday for the District title.

“The cool thing about the team is that we don't have a go-to hitter this year; we have a bunch of really talented girls,” Notario said. “No matter who is up there, we don't have to worry about the ball getting to a specific person.”

Notario said the girls text her occasionally with questions about how O'Brien is doing, but for the most part it is not a common topic.

“Karen is kind of a private person, and I did not want to overstep any boundaries,” Notario said. “She talked to them when she felt the need to talk to them, but every now and then I'll get a text asking if she is doing OK. I do have little talks with them when she's not around to make sure they are taking care of their health.”

As far as O'Brien is concerned, the players and their families have given her a lot of support.

“I truly believe in faith, family and friends, and I've had the support of all three really since February of my first diagnosis,” she said. “The community and the school have all been very supportive.

“My volleyball parents bring me and my family meals during my first couple of days of chemo. I have a son who is 16 and plays football and now is going into basketball, and my husband coaches football and now will go into coaching basketball, and those meals have been awesome.

“I have lots of good people around who support and help me. It's been such a help.”

If O'Brien and the Kestrels win the Class C championship in two weeks, it would cap an incredible inspirational story. But she isn't ready to look that far into the future – although she does want to continue to spearhead teal attack.

“I believe I'm headed in the right direction, just finishing up the chemo,” she said. “I am glad the second chapter is done.

“I look at teal attack as something that I really want to promote throughout the state. We've had matches in North Branch and Berrien Springs, and I would really, really like to get a lot more in the state of Michigan going.

“It's not all about raising money; it's about raising awareness.”

Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Karen O’Brien and her husband Dan are all smiles after her last chemotherapy treatment last month. (Middle) Senior Merina Poupard puts up a block during a match this season. (Below) Poupard (middle) celebrates the point with teammates including Abby Jackson (2) and Lauren Kemmerling (11). (Match photos courtesy of Kortney Poupard).

JoBurg 3-Sport Great Capping Career Filled with All-State Honors, Team Trophies

By Tom Spencer
Special for

April 5, 2024

It won’t be hard for Jayden Marlatt to remember opening day on the softball field from any of her four years at Johannesburg-Lewiston.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAs a freshman, she missed the opener due to needing to quarantine. Her sophomore and junior years started on the road because the Cardinals’ field was under construction.  

This season the Cardinals will open up — weather permitting — on their brand-new field, hosting Mio on Monday, April 8.  Marlatt is slated to be the starting pitcher again and add to her school record collection.

While Johannesburg-Lewiston is looking forward to playing on the new diamond, Marlatt and her teammates have high hopes of finishing the season almost 200 miles south. They’re looking to get back to Michigan State University – the site of the Division 4 Semifinals and Final.

The Cards have had their sites on that goal since they fell 4-2 to Mendon in last year’s Semifinal at Secchia Stadium. The loss ended a 30-4-1 campaign that saw the Cardinals play every game on the road for a second consecutive year, but come up only one victory short of a first championship game appearance.

The trip to East Lansing also came after the Cards won the program’s first District title since 2008 and advanced to the Semifinals for the first time since 1981.

“It has been a long two seasons on the road,” said eighth-year head coach Kim Marlatt, noting the team utilized a Little League field for practices during the stretch. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, so it is excited to get going.”

Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. The new field isn’t the only new things this spring. The Cardinals will have a junior varsity team for the first time during the Marlatt’s tenure. The JV squad is coached by Ryan Marlatt, who has been serving the program the past eight years as assistant coach. He also has been the head girls basketball coach at JoBurg the past two seasons.

The Marlatt coaches are the proud parents of Jayden, who continues to garner recognition as perhaps the greatest athlete in Johannesburg-Lewiston’s history. 

The three-sport star had a huge hand in all that JoBurg accomplished last season leading the team in batting average (.670), home runs (13) and runs batted in (61). As the team’s ace pitcher, she collected 249 strikeouts and compiled a 1.32 ERA.

“Jayden has put in the hard work,” Kim pointed out.  “She is a very humble athlete. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about herself. She likes to compete, and she likes to be on the top of her game for her teammates.”

Jayden has been named all-conference and all-state in softball, basketball and volleyball nearly every season over her four years at JoBurg. She’s led her teams to Ski Valley Conference, District and Regional titles along the way.

She’s also been named Player of the Year by multiple publications. And she’s a front runner to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the Ski Valley Conference in softball. Earlier this year, league coaches voted her the MVP for both basketball and volleyball.  

“The Ski Valley never used to vote on an MVP,” Ryan Marlatt said. “Hopefully she can add the triple crown and get softball this year.”

Jayden Marlatt, who has played all three sports all four years, acknowledged softball is perhaps her most treasured, and she’ll continue in that sport at Ferris State. Her career total of more than 500 strikeouts, and her 14 home runs last season, are both JoBurg school records. "I like them all but probably softball,” she confirmed when asked to name her favorite sport.

She averaged 12 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and four steals per game this winter helping the Cards basketball team to a conference runner-up finish. She was key to JoBurg's ability to put a 12-game winning streak together, and she topped the 1,000-point career mark along the way.

Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season.Her outstanding senior year on the basketball court and this spring’s possibilities nearly vanished as the volleyball season ended.

She suffered what looked to be a serious lower-leg injury in the final game of the JoBurg volleyball season. “She finished in the emergency room,” Kim Marlatt said.  

Diagnosed a high ankle sprain, it was an aggravation to an injury from her junior year in basketball. She wasn’t quite at 100 percent on the basketball court this season until the holiday break. She’s starting the softball season healthy, though.

Before the injury, Jayden led the Cards to their third volleyball conference championship over the last four years. After becoming JoBurg's all-time kills leader during her junior season, and with many of her teammates from her first three seasons graduating, Jayden had to fill a variety of roles while anchoring the offense from her outside hitter spot.

She ended up leading the team in both kills with 421 and digs, with 431, in her final season on the volleyball court. And she is listed among MHSAA’s all-time leaders in kills for a single match and career.

It’s more than Marlatt’s stats that stand out for Kristine Peppin, the school’s volleyball coach the past 15 years.

“It is not about the size of the school or the size of the player, it’s the heart that they have inside,” she proclaimed. “This girl would be a successful player on whatever team she was on. 

“Yes we’re a small school, small town,” she continued. “That kind of leadership and heart and drive to be the best is what’s given her that success.”

Marlatt’s work ethic is second to none, Peppin noted. She never saw Jayden give less than a “1,000” percent in practice or games in her career. 

Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt.“She’s a super hard worker and extremely modest for the kind of skill she possesses and the success she’s had,” Peppin said. “Her teammates think it’s amazing to be on her team.”

Marlatt’s volleyball skills caught the eye of at least one of her conference opponents’ coaches back in junior high. Ron Stremlow was performing one of his many coaching duties for Fife Lake Forest Area when he first saw Jayden on the volleyball court.

“I could tell then this girl was somebody special,” said Stremlow, who became one of the winningest coaches in state volleyball history with the Warriors. “When she got in high school, it just took off.

“She puts the time into it, and she works hard,” Stremlow continued. “Kids like that get what they deserve – they work for it.”

Stremlow, now retired, also acknowledged he’s enjoyed being able to watch the hard-throwing Marlatt on the softball field the last couple of seasons as Forest Area hosted the Cardinals consecutively due to JoBurg’s lack of a home field.

It’s something he’ll have to travel to do this year though, as JoBurg is scheduled to host the Warriors on April 15.

The Cardinals also will host a Regional on their new field June 8. The winners of District play at Rogers City, Harbor Springs, St. Ignace and Gaylord St. Mary will participate.

To play in the Regional, the Cards will have to emerge from the Rogers City District featuring the host Hurons, Atlanta, Hillman, Onaway, and Posen.

Tom SpencerTom 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) Johannesburg-Lewiston’s Jayden Marlatt drives a pitch during softball season. (2) Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. (3) Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season. (4) Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt. (Action shots by Dylan Jespersen/Petoskey News-Review; family photo by Breya Domke.)