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.)

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.)