By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
LOWELL – The Lowell volleyball team has earned a trip to the season’s final week for the first time.
A beefed-up regular-season schedule helped pave the way toward school history – last week’s program-first Regional title and a spot in Tuesday’s Division 1 Quarterfinal at Jenison against No. 3 Mattawan.
Second-year Lowell coach Jordan Drake said strengthening the schedule was a focal point after bowing out in the District Final against eventual Division 1 runner-up Rockford last season.
“That was something I looked at with my coaching staff after losing to Rockford last season,” Drake said. “What can we change in order to not be in this situation again next year? I talked with my athletic director, and I said to put us in the hardest tournaments that we could.”
The No. 2-ranked Red Arrows haven’t shied away from playing against, and beating, the top teams in the state en route to a stellar 53-3 record. Lowell has wins over seven more of the top 10 in the final Division 1 coaches poll, plus the top two ranked teams in Division 2 and No. 1 team in Division 3. The Red Arrows early this season handed Division 1 No. 1 Farmington Hills Mercy its only loss (although, it should be noted, Mercy was playing without senior hitter Jess Mruzik, who was in Egypt with the U.S. U-18 national team and was back when Mercy won a rematch with Lowell last month).
“I knew we had a good team last year, but we just weren’t battle-tested,” said Drake, whose team also won the first conference title in school history last season.
“Playing Mercy, Grand Rapids Christian, Lake Orion, Hudsonville, Lakewood and Schoolcraft that are championship-contending teams, those are the conversations that you want to be in and the matches you want to be in throughout the whole season so when you get to this point you feel like you’ve been there before. I think it’s been a huge difference-maker for our kids.”
Senior middle hitter Meghan Meyer, who’s recorded 438 kills and 74 blocks, said the improved quality of their schedule has paid dividends.
“Coach put us in tournaments where we could be exposed to those good teams more so we would be experienced and ready for when it came to moments like this,” she said. “That really showed us what we’re capable of doing.”
Lowell defeated No. 4 Hudsonville 3-1 in the Regional Final. It was a gratifying win that accomplished a season-long goal, while also avenging two of the Red Arrows' losses this fall.
“The girls were ecstatic, and winning Regionals was obviously one of the goals we had set out for ourselves this season,” Drake said. “It’s right where we want to be, and we’re taking this thing one game at a time and we’re looking forward to a great competition with Mattawan. It’s going to be another tough battle like the road we’ve had. It’s been just a grind.”
Junior outside hitter Jenna Reitsma, who leads the team with 795 kills to go along with 379 digs and 82 aces, was thrilled to pull off another program first.
“We were all just really excited, and we worked really hard to get here,” Reitsma said. “We wanted to get past that milestone, especially since our school hadn’t done it before, so it was exciting to make history and work hard together to get that win.”
The Red Arrows returned eight players this fall from a year ago. However, experience alone wasn’t going to be enough to help the team meet heightened expectations.
The intangibles also needed to be developed.
“I definitely thought we could reach this level, but it was a matter of them wanting to put the work in,” Drake said. “There was a lot of things we still had to get better at from last year, and that included taking game by game and growing from our losses against tough teams.”
Still, the five-set loss to Rockford that ended their 2018 season provided perfect motivation.
“I know when we were playing different teams we kept that loss in the back of our minds,” Meyer said. “We used that as willpower to push through. It was hard losing to them, and we remembered that. We pushed ourselves harder.”
Other key contributors for the Red Arrows include junior setter Sophie Powell (1,446 assists) and junior libero Emma Hall (476 digs).
“We have never been this far in Lowell history, but we’re just going to work our hardest,” Meyer said. “It’s going to be a good game, and I believe we’re ready.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lowell hitters await the serve during the St. Johns Invitational on Oct. 5, where the Red Arrows went 6-0. (Middle) Meghan Meyer (5) loads up for a kill attempt. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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).