By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
MONTGOMERY – Jocelynn Nicholls was first drawn to volleyball in grade school.
Over the years, the Camden-Frontier senior has made the transition from being a wild swinging middle-schooler to an apprehensive freshman on the varsity to an all-state volleyball player headed to Trine University to play the sport she loves.
“I fell in love with volleyball when I was in the fourth grade,” she said. “I’ve played basketball and softball, but nothing feels like volleyball.”
It wasn’t always easy for Nicholls, who has overcome the loss of her mother Amy Nicholls during her sophomore season to become a tower of strength for the Redskins.
“She’s been through a lot, but she’s a tough kid and is going to make something of herself,” said Camden-Frontier coach Dawn Follis.
Nicholls’ mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the early part of 2018. By volleyball season that year, her mom had become very ill, enough that Nicholls missed a match when her mom went to the hospital. That season, her mom lost her battle; she died on a game day.
Nicholls had asked her mom earlier that day if she should play.
“I said to her ‘What do you want me to do?’,” said Nicholls, who was 15 at the time. “She squeezed my hand and told me to go. She couldn’t talk, so we had a way to communicate through squeezing my hand. She wanted me to play.”
About halfway through the match against Pittsford, Nicholls felt something she had never experienced before – a feeling, almost like a change in her body.
“My aunt was at the game watching me,” she said. “She even noticed the change in me. I got home after the game, and I figured out the news.”
Her mom, an English professor and dean of the Jannen School of Arts and Sciences at Trine University in nearby Angola, Ind., had passed away.
Nicholls turned to volleyball to help her through. Using her mom as her strength, she didn’t miss another match. Volleyball has always been a big part of her life.
“I’ve come a long way since my freshman year,” she said. “Being pulled up to the varsity was a huge thing. It was a great opportunity for me to grow as a player. It really opened my eyes.”
After that season on the varsity, she started playing club volleyball, first at a club in Hillsdale, then at Team Pineapple Volleyball Club in Angola, which is less than a half hour from her home.
"Once I started playing for other teams, I started playing up, against older girls,” she said. “When I was a freshman I was playing against a bunch of seniors.”
Follis and the Redskins have built a small-school powerhouse in south central Michigan, just north of the Michigan-Indiana state line. Nicholls helped Camden-Frontier to a school-record 40 wins that sophomore season and they won 36 matches and the school’s first Regional crown in 2019. This fall’s was another outstanding season for the Redskins, who went 25-3 and won a fourth-straight District title. Over Nicholls’ four varsity seasons, Camden-Frontier won more than 100 matches.
Nicholls had a great season in 2020, earning first-team all-state honors from the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association. Playing about half the matches the Redskins typically play in a season, she recorded 395 kills, averaging 4.34 per set, and accumulated 141 digs. Two of her teammates, junior Dakota Sigler and senior Heather Shaw, made the all-state honorable mention list. (Camden-Frontier fell 3-2 to Lansing Christian in a Regional Semifinal on Nov. 10; Lansing Christian will play in the Quarterfinals on Tuesday.)
Follis said Nicholls knows how to use her height to her advantage.
“She’s very tall and very athletic and aggressive,” Follis said. “She’s worked really hard on her game. When she was in middle school, she was tall and had this wild swing. She played all of the time, and it shows.”
Nicholls stands 6-foot tall. She had 70 blocks and block assists this season.
“I’ve always been really tall,” she said. “I think by the fifth grade I was taller than any boy in my class.
“I always knew I was tall and that would benefit me, but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough. I worked hard to increase my vertical. I put in a lot of time. I definitely try and use that to my advantage."
Follis said Nicholls did use her height to her advantage, something not all tall players do.
“She’s a hitter, and she really jumps well,” said Follis. “In high school she has the ability to change the game with her hitting. She’s a game-changer.”
At the Camden-Frontier matches over the past couple of years, there was typically a large contingent of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins watching Nicholls and her teammates play. That is one of the reasons she chose Trine – her family will be able to see her play.
“I want to be close to my family,” she said. “I’d rather be 20 minutes away than 12 hours away. Family is a big deal for me.”
Nicholls said she loves to hang out with family and friends but doesn’t have time for a lot of other interests outside of sports. She likes to stay busy, no matter what sports season it is. Right now, she is lifting and running on nice days and staying ready for the upcoming basketball season. She’s been on the varsity softball team since her freshman season as well.
“I am fulltime, 100-percent motivated to focus on my game,” she said.
At Trine she plans on majoring in exercise science with the hopes of going into physical therapy or something in the athletic field.
“I want to be there for my mom,” she said. “It’s a big opportunity that I will even get to play there. That’s where I wanted to be.”
Trine is a big part of the Nicholls family. Not only was her mom a professor at the school, but she also graduated from Trine. Her dad Scott and brother Mason also went to Trine. Jocelynn started going there at a young age and impressed the volleyball coach years ago.
“When I was a freshman, I went there for a camp and the coach told me if I continued to work hard, I would get a (scholarship) offer,” she recalled.
Losing her mother a couple of years ago, Nicholls said, completely changed her outlook on life.
“It provided me an opportunity to grow,” she said. “It makes me want to give 100 percent all of the time and not take anything for granted. You are not promised tomorrow.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Camden-Frontier’s Jocelynn Nicholls holds up her team’s District title trophy from this season. (Middle) Nicholls serves during a match this fall. (Photos by Doug Donnelly.)
BATTLE CREEK – Natasha Bickel had an up-close look the last time North Branch won a Finals volleyball title. As a ball girl, she was able to watch the Broncos take home a championship at Kellogg Arena.
On Saturday, Bickel got to experience being on the court to win one.
“I remember when I was a ball girl one of the years we won states (2016) and one of the years we didn’t,” Bickel, a senior middle hitter, said. “Except for last year, we haven’t really came this far. Coming back here, being in the Finals and winning it? It put the cherry on top.”
Bickel and the Broncos defeated Cadillac 31-29, 25-18, 25-17 in the Division 2 Final. It was the fourth title for the program, and first since 2016.
“We put a lot into this,” Bickel said. “We’ve poured our lives into this sport. It’s really awesome. This was our goal since we were little. As we were going up every year we were pushing for it, and last year we came so, so close to doing it. We added a freshman and she’s amazing, and everybody is healthy this year. It was just really, really awesome.
North Branch was the Division 2 runner-up a year ago, losing to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep in the Final. The Broncos downed the Irish in the Regional Final this year, and didn’t drop a set the rest of the way, sweeping Mount Morris in the Quarterfinal and Grand Rapids South Christian in the Semifinal.
So it may have caught some off guard when Cadillac had some early success Saturday night.
Cadillac had North Branch (53-7) on the ropes quickly, jumping out to a 16-9 lead in the first set and forcing the Broncos to take a pair of timeouts over a five-point span.
Vikings middle hitter Carissa Musta, who stands 6-foot-4, was a major reason for that. She had three straight blocks, four total, and two kills during a 10-point run.
While North Branch scrambled to find a way to hit around her, it struggled to get into its offense, and went down 10 before starting to dig out.
“I just said, keep battling guys, keep battling,” North Branch coach Jim Fish said. “That’s the mark of a good team that they’re not going to give up. We didn’t panic, which was good. That’s a huge comeback.”
When the Broncos did dig out, it led to an epic end of the set. North Branch fought off eight Cadillac set points before finally taking the lead back at 29-28.
Freshman Aubree Deshetsky, who kept the Broncos alive initially with four straight high-pressure serves, had the final three kills of the set to put it away. She had eight kills total in the set.
“Aubree Deshetsky’s a stud,” Fish said. “She’s a stud, she does a lot for our team. We had everybody back, and she forced her way into our lineup. She’s just a great player. She’s going to be heard for the next three years.”
While the first-set defeat could have been a back-breaker for a Cadillac team looking to pull an upset, it did not wilt. The Vikings stood toe-to-toe with the Broncos in the second set, despite playing from behind for nearly all of it.
Cadillac (34-11-4) even tied the set at 18 before Bickel helped North Branch rattle off the final seven points to take it. Bickel had three kills in the final stretch, showing off power and finesse in the process.
The Broncos flexed their muscle in the third set, building a 20-8 lead with eight straight points – seven on Bickel’s serve. Her block then put North Branch a point away, and the match was won on a service error.
“If we could have just gotten one of those set points (in the first set), who knows what would have happened,” Cadillac coach Michelle Brines said. “I was really proud of my team, because I don’t know that people gave us much of a chance at all. And, we just played really tough. We played pretty tough for the first set and a half, then it kind of seemed like we were running out of steam a little bit and they were asserting their will.”
Deshetsky finished with 13 kills and 14 digs for the Broncos, while Clara Gyomory had 12 kills and Bickel had 11. Alana Deshetsky finished with nine kills and 22 digs, Hailey Green had 25 digs and Adrienne Greschaw had 45 assists for the Broncos.
Musta led Cadillac with 16 kills and seven blocks. Brooke Ellens had 23 digs, and Cassie Jenema had 30 assists and 17 digs.
PHOTOS (Top) North Branch celebrates its Division 2 championship Saturday at Kellogg Arena. (Middle) The Broncos’ Adrienne Greschaw (1) sets as Cadillac awaits the kill attempt. (Below) Cadillac’s Carissa Musta (9) powers a hit toward a North Branch block.