New Coach, Same High Standard at Calumet

October 12, 2017

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ESCANABA – A new coach is at the helm, but the tradition of excellent volleyball has carried on at Calumet High School.

The Copper Kings (27-6-2) are ranked sixth in the Class C state coaches poll this week as Matt Laho has added to the success established over the past 20 years by Lisa Twardzik. Calumet was Class C runner-up in 2008, a semifinalist in 2007 and 2016 and has won the past five Regional titles.

Calumet is the heart of a powerful volleyball program in the Copper Country, the northern-most region of the state. "We're not at the hockey status, but in the fall volleyball is a pretty big deal," said veteran Houghton volleyball coach John Christianson. 

"Volleyball has become the in thing to do at schools up this way."

The two programs set the pace throughout the Upper Peninsula. They met recently with Calumet taking the decisive fifth match 15-11, and they meet again Tuesday at Houghton. They will also play in the Houghton tournament Saturday.

Laho, an assistant to Twardzik last year after spending several coaching and teaching in Wyoming after his graduation from Finlandia University, has put some of his own touches into the program while building on the foundation established by Twardzik.

"I soaked up as much as I can. She built Calumet into a volleyball powerhouse, and I want to continue that and try to keep that tradition alive," the Calumet fifth grade teacher said of trying to fill Twardzik's huge shoes.

He runs a middle-middle defense but said the emphasis is in different areas. "I have principles and philosophies and I build offense and defense systems around the players," Laho added.

Laho said Twardzik coached the "whole athlete, volleyball and academics and coached young women with fundamentals.

"Lisa always did a great job focusing on positive reinforcement. I do that too, but then I tell them here is where we go next," he said. His approach "lets them know things will be different. I let players know I will be open-minded."

The Copper Kings won an early-season tournament in Kingsford and last weekend won their pool at a 16-team tournament in Suttons Bay. "I'm very happy where we are at this point of the season," Laho said. "We have exceeded where we want to be at this point."

Laho said the team's strong suits are ball control, transition passing, defense and serving. "Our attacking, while not a weakness, can be more effective," he said.
Laho prefers everything "to be as simple as possible. I want things to become natural rather than to think about it on the floor."

Meanwhile, he takes a technical approach and gets a lot of individual feedback. "I have given them tiny tweaks to help them get better," he said.

"One thing they are noted for is defense, extremely disciplined defense," said Christianson. "Trying to find holes in their defense is difficult. And they are fundamentally really, really sound. They play with a mental focus, and they focus on the task at hand. And they have been blessed with some big, athletic girls, competitive girls."

A key player has been senior power hitter Lea Bjorn, "your prototypical hard-working athlete," said Laho. "She is a six-rotation player."

Other key players are seniors Ninia Anderson and Brea Johnson and juniors Celia Kiilunen and Brooke Kariniemi. 

That group is following in the footsteps made by current Northern Michigan University spikers Janie Torola and Hailey Wickstrom.

This is also a tough team for opponents to dislike. "Their players are really nice people," said Christianson. "Their parents have raised them to be really nice ladies. It is a very good program with very good people."

Their reputation has spread across the Upper Peninsula and downstate as well.

"No doubt any place they go in the U.P., they are the standard bearer," said Christianson. "They set the bar, and the rest of us try to get there."

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Calumet celebrates winning the Kingsford Invitational in coach Matt Laho’s debut. (Middle) A pair of Calumet players puts up a block against Lake Linden-Hubbell last month. (Photos courtesy of Calumet’s athletic department.)

Fear the Socks: Cadillac Volleyball Success Never Out of Style

By Tom Spencer
Special for

September 22, 2023

Cadillac’s girls volleyball team is quite accustomed to getting flack from opposing teams’ student sections about their socks.

Northern Lower PeninsulaThat’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.

Cassie Jenema sets for a teammate during a match. 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.”

Ari Bryant keeps the ball in play.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 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) 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).