Imlay City Embracing Tough Schedule, Missing Injured Standout, with End Game in Mind

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

September 13, 2023

Rachel Van Dyk wanted to make things as tough as possible for her Imlay City volleyball team. 

Bay & ThumbWhen the third-year coach created the Spartans’ schedule for this season, it wasn’t with the goal of picking up wins in August or September, but preparing them for November.

So, it was packed with tournaments featuring Division 1 opponents and some of the state’s top teams such as Clarkston, Farmington Hills Mercy, South Lyon East, Saginaw Valley Lutheran, and even an extra date with 2022 Division 2 champion and conference rival North Branch.

“That’s the idea,” said Van Dyk, who played collegiately at Michigan State. “In looking for tournaments, I look for what’s going to give us the toughest possible schedule. We’re looking at, ‘How are we going to improve the most?’ It’s not by playing teams we can beat easily. We might get creamed sometimes, we might get humbled sometimes, but we’re going to learn from it. I’m a proponent of doing what’s going to make us the best team possible, regardless of whether our record looks good to other people.”

That record sat at 6-7-2 heading into this week, and while it’s modest, it still looked good enough against the Spartans’ tough schedule for the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association to rank them No. 10 in Division 2.

But more important than outside recognition is that Van Dyk’s players get it as well.

“I think we all understand that it’s just getting us ready to play North Branch, who we’ll see in Districts,” senior libero Lexa Forti said. “I think everything is just leading up to that game in Districts and everything. We kind of brush off the losses, I guess, even though obviously, we want to win.”

It’s the second year Van Dyk has been able to build the Spartans with the postseason in mind, although this year the schedule certainly is beefed up.

Still, a year ago it was Imlay City that pushed North Branch – where Van Dyk served as an assistant prior to coming to Imlay City – as far as anyone else, losing in five sets in the District tournament. 

So the players know that what they’re doing can work, making it easier to focus on improving during the early months of the season rather than putting up an impressive record.

“I feel like our goals might be bigger than other teams’,” junior outside hitter Chloe Bruman said. “I feel like we’re pretty hard on ourselves. I think we know what we’re capable of, as well.”

 The Spartans go for a kill during a scrimmage last month.One thing Van Dyk did not plan for, however – which is also making things very tough on the Spartans – is an injury to Emma Keeping.

The star sophomore played just the first two matches of the season before suffering a back injury. Van Dyk said the Spartans are likely to be without their right-side hitter and setter until early to mid-October. 

Again, that makes winning tougher, especially against a strong nonconference schedule and an already difficult Blue Water Area Conference slate – the Spartans dropped a five-setter against Croswell-Lexington on Tuesday.

But Van Dyk and her players are seeing the positives in the absence of their biggest offensive threat.

“It’s required kids to step into roles that they didn’t expect to take,” Van Dyk said. “Those are some big shoes to fill, but we’ve found ways to try to see it in a positive light. Diamonds are made under pressure. The more challenges we can face, the more prepared we are for the challenge we’re going to face in North Branch in the District.”

One of the players most affected by Keeping’s absence is classmate Makayla Bruman, who shares setting duties in the Spartans rotation. Not only has she been forced to do more setting, but she’s had to find other options with Keeping gone.

One of those whom the Spartans have leaned on more is her sister, Chloe Bruman, who Van Dyk said has really stepped up and embraced her new role. Junior Yannet Zepeda is another outside hitter Van Dyk mentioned who has seen her role expand.

On top of all that, Forti is learning a new position, as she was just recently cleared following a torn ACL during basketball season. Formerly a six-rotation outside hitter for the Spartans, Forti is now playing libero. 

The Spartans are hopeful that getting through this time without Keeping will lead to a much more diverse attack once she comes back.

“I think it’s going to help us out tremendously,” Chloe Bruman said. “Obviously, we rely on her. Our whole team knows that; our coaches know that. I think it’s going to be more of a relief for her to come back. She’s such a leader on the court, and not just because she’s good. I think it will definitely be more difficult for other teams, because our offensive is going to be more widespread.”

Paul CostanzoPaul 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) Imlay City huddles up during this past weekend’s Birch Run Invitational. (Middle) The Spartans go for a kill during a scrimmage last month. (Photos courtesy of the Imlay City volleyball program.)

Fear the Socks: Cadillac Volleyball Success Never Out of Style

By Tom Spencer
Special for

September 22, 2023

Cadillac’s girls volleyball team is quite accustomed to getting flack from opposing teams’ student sections about their socks.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThat’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.

Cassie Jenema sets for a teammate during a match. 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.”

Ari Bryant keeps the ball in play.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 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) 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).