Rachel Van Dyk wanted to make things as tough as possible for her Imlay City volleyball team.
When 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.”
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 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.)
Sarah Bradley ♦ Clarkston Everest Collegiate
Junior ♦ Volleyball
The 6-0 outside hitter had 31 kills – tied for sixth-most in an MHSAA Final – with a .419 hitting percentage and 18 digs as Everest Collegiate came back from a two-set deficit to defeat No. 4-ranked Leland in five in Saturday’s Division 4 championship match at Kellogg Arena. The first Finals title in program history capped a tournament run that saw the Mountaineers also win their first Regional title. Everest entered the postseason ranked No. 10 in Division 4 and finished 32-4-2.
Bradley finished the season with 420 kills, adding 15 in a Quarterfinal win over No. 6 Marlette and 25 in a five-set Semifinal victory over top-ranked Adrian Lenawee Christian during which Everest also came back after losing the first two sets. Bradley was named to the Division 4 all-state first team after earning an honorable mention as a sophomore. She also plays basketball, softball and soccer for the Mountaineers and is interested in pursuing a career in the medical field as she begins contemplating her college possibilities.
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Past 2023-24 Honorees
Nov. 17: Kalieb Osborne, Waterford Mott football - Report
Nov. 10: Tekalegn Vlasma, Muskegon Western Michigan Christian soccer - Report
Nov. 3: Colton Kinnie, Birmingham Seaholm football - Report
Oct. 27: Lauren Timpf, Macomb Lutheran North golf - Report
Oct. 20: Alena Li, Okemos golf - Report
Oct. 13: Seth Norder, Grand Haven cross country - Report
Oct. 5: Paige Anderson, Muskegon Reeths-Puffer golf - Report
Sept. 29: MacKenzie Bisballe, Lake City volleyball - Report
Sept. 22: Jhace Massey, Gladwin football - Report
Sept. 15: Kaylee Draper, Sturgis swimming - Report
Sept. 8: Owen Jackson, Traverse City St. Francis tennis - Report
Sept. 1: Rachel Forsyth, Ann Arbor Pioneer cross country - Report
(Photos courtesy of the Clarkston Everest Collegiate athletic department.)