By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – The Lake Odessa Lakewood volleyball team won the award Saturday at Kellogg Arena for most emotion shown after an MHSAA championship win.
Senior Emily Kutch was in tears as coach Kellie Rowland charged onto the court and grabbed her and senior Olivia Davis. Rowland and her assistants – husband Clair and former head coach Jeff Duits – then met for another hug as a few decades of almost-there dissolved into distant memory.
Those three – and a number of these players – have been at this championship chase for a while. But the Vikings finally got their title with a 25-20, 25-18, 25-17 victory over perennial power North Branch.
Rowland has brought Lakewood to the season’s final week seven more times during a 15-year career that has stretched over two tenures and includes 787 wins. But with four four-year varsity players on the court, she and a large group of fans and alumni finally got to celebrate ending with a victory for the first time.
“We worked so hard for this. Everybody’s been saying this was the year, this is the team to win it all. And we did,” Kutch said. “Just winning in three (sets), and dominating like that. All of us seniors; there are seven of us and we’ve been together forever. And I think that carried the emotion too.”
Lakewood finished 52-4 to cap its first trip back to Battle Creek since the final winter season, in 2007. The Vikings had played in one other championship game, in 1995, when they lost to Stevensville Lakeshore.
Lakewood thought for a moment that it had earned the first point of Saturday’s match, but a close call went North Branch’s way. The Broncos actually got off to a 2-0 start in that first set – but Lakewood would outlast them to take it, 25-20.
Both Kutch and Broncos coach Jim Fish agreed that first game was key. Lakewood seemed to build momentum in winning the second 25-18, and then closed out the title with a 25-17 win capped by a final kill by Kutch that touched just before the back line on the Broncos' side.
Kutch and Davis, two of those four-year seniors, had 18 and 14 kills, respectively. At 6-foot and 6-1 they had a slight height advantage on their opponents, and took advantage.
“Oh my gosh, I didn’t want it to go into a fourth game. The heart can only take so much, and I’m not very young,” Rowland said. “They just really executed and did what they needed to do to beat them.
“We have the size, we have the speed and we have the quickness. And Brooke Wieland, out setter, really felt it in warm-ups. Our hitters were like, ‘Just keep setting baby, because it’s right where we need it.’”
Wieland and libero Beth Tingley also were four-year varsity seniors. Weiland had 31 assists and 11 digs in the Final, and Tingley had 11 digs as she helped key a defensive adjustment meant to combat North Branch’s strong outside attack.
The Broncos (68-8-1) got 11 kills from senior Micaela Deshetsky and 13 digs from senior libero Rachel Fish, who were both contributors when the team finished Class B runner-up in 2010. This was its third trip to Battle Creek in four seasons – North Branch won the title in 2009.
“I couldn’t be here my freshman year because I was sick, but when we lost my sophomore year there was a bitter taste, so we were ready to be back,” said Fish, a daughter of the coach. “All our emotions, everyone’s heart was really in it. We wanted it bad. But they were really good. Lakewood played really well against us.”
And neither was able to dodge the other contenders. The Vikings were ranked No. 1 coming into the tournament and North Branch was No. 2. Lakewood then beat the Nos. 3, 6 and 7 teams to make it to the end, while the Broncos eliminated Nos. 4 and 5 plus two honorable mentions to get to this point.
“We had a rough road to be able to get here, and I’m extremely proud of what they’ve done,” Jim Fish said. “There is not a negative involved in this. It was very positive, a great run, what high school athletics is all about.
“It’s what we talked about. There’s always going to be a winner and always going to be a loser. Our team wants to win just as badly as you do. As long as you understand that and keep it in perspective, you’re a winner. And that’s what these kids are.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Lakewood players Emily Kutch (2), Beth Tingley (10), Jordan Kietzman (17) and Brooke Wieland (6) celebrate a point during Saturday's Class B Final. (Middle) North Branch's Ally Ruhlman (2) sets up a teammate.
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).