By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – Emily Schaub has grown up in Battle Creek St. Philip’s volleyball tradition, her mother a member of the Tigers’ 1989 Class D championship team.
The last two seasons, Amy (Nelson) Schaub’s daughter also set St. Philip squads that weren’t supposed to continue the program’s near-decade of MHSAA Finals dominance.
But No. 1 in the regular-season rankings doesn’t mean much compared to number nine in the record book.
St. Philip, ranked No. 3 in Class D at the start of the postseason, defeated No. 2 Mendon in a Quarterfinal and then top-ranked Leland in Saturday’s Final 25-18, 25-18, 23-25, 25-17 to claim a record ninth consecutive MHSAA championship. The Tigers had entered this fall tied with the Marysville teams of 1997-2004 for the longest title streak in MHSAA volleyball history.
“Growing up and watching them, it was always great to say ‘I want to be out there one day.’ And just having that experience, being around that all my life, has pushed me harder to want to be like that,” Schaub said. “Going out there and doing that, … it feels good to prove we’re just as good as the other teams. Just to show we’re a great program, even when considered in a rebuilding year, just to show we’re still a fighting team and we’re here to stay.”
In 40 seasons of MHSAA volleyball, St. Philip has made the Semifinals 32 times, played in 28 championship games and won 20.
The eighth-straight title last season meant something personally to St. Philip coach Vicky Groat, who took over the program from her late mother Sheila Guerra and tied her mom’s career total of nine championships won.
But Saturday’s crowning victory will serve as one of the brightest points of pride for a community that turned out again to celebrate success.
“Ask every single one of these girls if they were in the stands for championship runs or Final Fours. They were in the stands watching, and they want to be part of that team,” Groat said. “That’s what it is. These kids, they have that. They want to play for St. Phil. They want that experience. As a coach, I want to make sure to give every single one of my kids who play for me the chance at a Final Four or to play for a championship.”
And, as Groat added, there was something to be said of claiming number nine “with this group of girls.”
St. Philip graduated all-state hitter and Miss Volleyball winner Amanda McKinzie after the 2012 win, and another all-state hitter and Miss Volleyball candidate Sierra Hubbard-Neil after last fall.
The Tigers this season had only two hitters who saw time in the 2013 Final, when Hubbard-Neil had 19 of the team’s 31 kills.
But on Saturday, junior Abby McKinzie had 13 kills and senior Megan Parker added 12 as seven St. Philip players scored. Schaub had 32 assists and was one of five with at least 14 digs – sophomore libero Kameron Haley led with 21, tied for 11th most in an MHSAA Final during the rally scoring era that began in 2004-05.
St. Philip claimed the first two sets before Leland stormed back in the third. The Comets played the Tigers to 15-15 in the fourth set before St. Philip ended on a 10-2 run.
“She is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my life, and to be able top get this record for her is unexplainable,” McKinzie said of Groat. “I’m so happy to have won it for her.”
It came against a program that could be considered a distant part of the St. Phil family. Leland coach Laurie Glass coached against Guerra, and Glass’ players stay with Groat each year when they play in the Tigers’ tournament. Groat’s players stay with Glass each summer during the Comets’ camp.
Leland certainly had the Tigers wary of a comeback. Leland had fallen in its first Semifinal set to Onaway before winning the next two, losing the fourth and then shutting out Onaway 15-0 in the decider.
When Groat and Glass crossed paths after Leland claimed the third set, Groat did mutter a little something about a possible repeat of Thursday.
“We were certainly hoping to give her another run at that time, at least make it go to a fifth,” Glass said. “I thought they really started serving really well at that time (in the fourth), we started making passing errors and got a little tighter. We made a couple hitting errors, unforced errors on our part that gave them the momentum for that 3-4 point swing that put them ahead.”
Junior Maddie Trumbull led the Comets with 16 kills, and senior Jessica Fleis had 37 assists. Senior Miranda Harrison’s 24 digs ranked sixth for an MHSAA Final. The Comets' runner-up finish was their best since 2006, and they finished 43-13-4.
St. Philip finished 53-12-4, with a few more losses than the last couple of seasons. The Tigers finished 1-3 at the Rockford Invitational on Oct. 25, but that day Groat saw a championship-level surge beginning to build.
“At the start of the season, we were doubtful. Ask every single (player), we were doubtful,” Groat said. “(We thought) we’re going to have to do our best as coaches, but it’s not only coaching. It’s players, and they bought into it.
"They believed they could do it, and the power of believing is awesome.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Battle Creek St. Philip players celebrate claiming their ninth straight MHSAA title trophy. (Middle) St. Phil’s Abby McKinzie drive a kill while Leland’s Vianna Hennig (13) and Erica Ongaro prepare to block. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
COMETS ACE FOR SET THREE VICTORY - Down 2-0, Leland took the third set against Battle Creek St. Philip on this service ace by Eva Grobbel.
WINNER TIMES NINE IS FINE - Battle Creek St. Philip clinched its ninth straight Class D Girls Volleyball title on this kill from Abby McKinzie, which gave the Tigers a 3-1 decision over Leland.
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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 haver their sites 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).