Okemos 'Wall' Stands Tall as Chiefs Climb

September 15, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

OKEMOS – Daria Richards and Rachel Thomas always are partners when Okemos’ volleyball team lines up for drills, and always on opposite teams when the Chiefs split up to scrimmage.

Who better to match up than a pair of 6-foot-2 hitters who tower above their teammates and rise above the net with ease – and don’t mind giving each other a little verbal spike to keep things light?

During a blocking drill last week, they “got feisty with each other,” as Thomas put it – nothing serious, just a few “are you going to get that next times” after smashes found the floor, and Richards teasingly complimenting Thomas’ diving skill after the latter’s lunge came up empty.  

“I think we push each other. We mess with each other, as in I’ll give her grief for something and then she’ll do it right back at me,” Richards said. “We’re joking, but at the same time, it’s like, I’m not going to mess up again.”

“I think we have similar personalities too, like (with making) sarcastic comments,” Thomas added. “We’re kinda quiet at first. But once you get to know us, we’re not.”

A growing number of teams all over the Lower Peninsula are getting to know Okemos volleyball again this fall – thanks to the noise Thomas and Richards are making at the net.

The Chiefs have opened 13-5 heading into this weekend’s Portage Northern Invitational, the latest on a tournament schedule that’s stretched nearly from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron and included opponents from Traverse City to just north of the Ohio border.

Richards and Thomas are two of only four seniors on the team, but also young enough to know nothing about the last time their program made a serious run in Class A – in 2002-03, when assistant coach Allison Ianni was the setter and they were starting elementary school.

Okemos made its second straight MHSAA Quarterfinal appearance that season, and only three Lansing-area schools have advanced that far (and no farther) in Class A since – which hasn’t done much to steer statewide volleyball eyes away from the usual powerhouses in Battle Creek and suburban Grand Rapids and Detroit.

But this Chiefs duo isn’t a secret, at least not to possible tournament opponents, having played offseason ball with players from Class A runner-up Lake Orion and champion Romeo, including Miss Volleyball favorite Gia Milana.

Richards, playing in the middle, had 93 kills with a hitting percentage of .422 heading into Wednesday’s match against Jackson, and also averages 1.5 blocks per game. Thomas, from the right side after playing middle as a junior, hits at a .397 clip and averages 1.1 blocks, and may be the team’s top passer as well.

Both Richards and Thomas made headlines over the last year with future commitments – Richards will sign a letter of intent to play at Baylor University and Thomas will sign with Tennessee Tech.

But the common ground goes past witty comments and athletic prowess – and at least a few details likely contribute to their cohesiveness in leading the Okemos attack.  

They both used to play the violin, both taking it up in fifth grade. They spend a lot of time in the same classes, many of the toughest ones at a strong academic school, and with grades to show – Richards has a 3.9 grade-point average and Thomas comes in at 3.5.

They both have one sibling, although Thomas has a brother and Richards a sister. And though they run in different circles they are close friends on their own – although they didn’t really know each other until meeting on the volleyball court during eighth grade.

Richards was destined to play this game, following her older sister of two years Jessica, who started for the Chieftains through graduation – and with whom Daria already was competing with as a sixth grader, trying to match accomplishments in volleyball and high jump.

Thomas took just a bit longer to find her niche. She played basketball as a seventh grader, when varsity coach Jamie Ianni – who taught both girls in junior high physical education class (and also is Allison’s mom) – told Thomas’ mother that Rachel should play volleyball too. She gave it a try that winter, and it became her favorite sport.  

Both started on varsity as sophomores, and the coach knew she had something special in the making.  

“I don’t really look forward to anybody’s senior year, because it’s like, ‘Oh, I love these kids,’” Ianni said. “But they’re very special, the two together, (or) separate. They’re like twins. They wear the same thing. The same things come out of their mouths … much like a sister or a twin.”

And they’ve both learned plenty of lessons over the last two seasons they expect to pay off when tournament time begins.

Okemos finished a respectable 23-13-1 last season and second in the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue before losing in the MHSAA District Semifinal to Class A honorable mention DeWitt.

But outside of mid-Michigan, few had taken note of the Chiefs’ potential.

“Last year, people didn’t know,” Thomas said. “They were like, ‘Oh, they’re huge. Good for them.’”

But this fall has been different from the start. Thomas made her college decision at the end of last fall and Richards followed with hers at the end of winter, and word was getting around that the Chiefs had two Division I college hitters as they took the floor Aug. 22 at the Ann Arbor Pioneer Invitational.   

Richards admits that rising profile has brought out the best in some opponents. But it’s also been rewarding to recall how far the pair has come since playing junior varsity together as freshmen, and they both are quick to point out the other’s strengths:

Richards on Thomas: “She’s just a good all-around player. You can always count on her. She’s going to make her serve, she’s going to pass well, she’s going to make the most of out-of-tempo balls. She’s always keeping her cool; even if she missed 15 balls, you’d never know it. She’s still going to be ready for the next one.

Thomas on Richards: “She’s good at either getting a kill when it’s needed or a block for a game changer, to change the momentum. She’s always positive, and she encourages others. She has a positive vibe, so it’s easy to play with her.”

Added Ianni: “We use them both all the way around. They’re weapons on the court. It’s hard to pull them off.”

When Okemos won that last MHSAA Regional title in 2003, Allison Ianni (who went on to play at University of Pacific and Michigan State) set for a pair of future college hitters. She and teammate Amanda Amon, both 6-2 as well, were coined by another coach as the “Great Wall of Okemos.”

The wall appears rebuilt in Thomas and Richards, who despite their bright futures are focused on the now and turning some of that spotlight back toward the center of the state.

“I love it when there’s a big crowd. We do a lot better when there are people watching. Not to show off in front of them, but it’s exciting when you have people cheering you on,” Richards said.

“I think we could easily make a name for ourselves by beating one of those big schools. It’s always better to be the underdog because you have nothing to lose. That’s always cool when you play those teams, because nobody knows (you), like ‘Hey, who is this team? Where are they from?’”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Okemos' Daria Richards, left, and teammates including Rachel Thomas (10) enjoy a moment during last week's match against Lansing Eastern. (Middle) Richards and Thomas put up a block against the Quakers. (Below) Thomas exchanges congrats. (Photos courtesy of Alan Holben Photography.)

JoBurg 3-Sport Great Capping Career Filled with All-State Honors, Team Trophies

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

April 5, 2024

It won’t be hard for Jayden Marlatt to remember opening day on the softball field from any of her four years at Johannesburg-Lewiston.

Northern Lower PeninsulaAs a freshman, she missed the opener due to needing to quarantine. Her sophomore and junior years started on the road because the Cardinals’ field was under construction.  

This season the Cardinals will open up — weather permitting — on their brand-new field, hosting Mio on Monday, April 8.  Marlatt is slated to be the starting pitcher again and add to her school record collection.

While Johannesburg-Lewiston is looking forward to playing on the new diamond, Marlatt and her teammates have high hopes of finishing the season almost 200 miles south. They’re looking to get back to Michigan State University – the site of the Division 4 Semifinals and Final.

The Cards have had their sites on that goal since they fell 4-2 to Mendon in last year’s Semifinal at Secchia Stadium. The loss ended a 30-4-1 campaign that saw the Cardinals play every game on the road for a second consecutive year, but come up only one victory short of a first championship game appearance.

The trip to East Lansing also came after the Cards won the program’s first District title since 2008 and advanced to the Semifinals for the first time since 1981.

“It has been a long two seasons on the road,” said eighth-year head coach Kim Marlatt, noting the team utilized a Little League field for practices during the stretch. “They’ve been putting in a lot of work in the offseason, so it is excited to get going.”

Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. The new field isn’t the only new things this spring. The Cardinals will have a junior varsity team for the first time during the Marlatt’s tenure. The JV squad is coached by Ryan Marlatt, who has been serving the program the past eight years as assistant coach. He also has been the head girls basketball coach at JoBurg the past two seasons.

The Marlatt coaches are the proud parents of Jayden, who continues to garner recognition as perhaps the greatest athlete in Johannesburg-Lewiston’s history. 

The three-sport star had a huge hand in all that JoBurg accomplished last season leading the team in batting average (.670), home runs (13) and runs batted in (61). As the team’s ace pitcher, she collected 249 strikeouts and compiled a 1.32 ERA.

“Jayden has put in the hard work,” Kim pointed out.  “She is a very humble athlete. ‘She doesn’t like to talk about herself. She likes to compete, and she likes to be on the top of her game for her teammates.”

Jayden has been named all-conference and all-state in softball, basketball and volleyball nearly every season over her four years at JoBurg. She’s led her teams to Ski Valley Conference, District and Regional titles along the way.

She’s also been named Player of the Year by multiple publications. And she’s a front runner to be voted the Most Valuable Player of the Ski Valley Conference in softball. Earlier this year, league coaches voted her the MVP for both basketball and volleyball.  

“The Ski Valley never used to vote on an MVP,” Ryan Marlatt said. “Hopefully she can add the triple crown and get softball this year.”

Jayden Marlatt, who has played all three sports all four years, acknowledged softball is perhaps her most treasured, and she’ll continue in that sport at Ferris State. Her career total of more than 500 strikeouts, and her 14 home runs last season, are both JoBurg school records. "I like them all but probably softball,” she confirmed when asked to name her favorite sport.

She averaged 12 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and four steals per game this winter helping the Cards basketball team to a conference runner-up finish. She was key to JoBurg's ability to put a 12-game winning streak together, and she topped the 1,000-point career mark along the way.

Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season.Her outstanding senior year on the basketball court and this spring’s possibilities nearly vanished as the volleyball season ended.

She suffered what looked to be a serious lower-leg injury in the final game of the JoBurg volleyball season. “She finished in the emergency room,” Kim Marlatt said.  

Diagnosed a high ankle sprain, it was an aggravation to an injury from her junior year in basketball. She wasn’t quite at 100 percent on the basketball court this season until the holiday break. She’s starting the softball season healthy, though.

Before the injury, Jayden led the Cards to their third volleyball conference championship over the last four years. After becoming JoBurg's all-time kills leader during her junior season, and with many of her teammates from her first three seasons graduating, Jayden had to fill a variety of roles while anchoring the offense from her outside hitter spot.

She ended up leading the team in both kills with 421 and digs, with 431, in her final season on the volleyball court. And she is listed among MHSAA’s all-time leaders in kills for a single match and career.

It’s more than Marlatt’s stats that stand out for Kristine Peppin, the school’s volleyball coach the past 15 years.

“It is not about the size of the school or the size of the player, it’s the heart that they have inside,” she proclaimed. “This girl would be a successful player on whatever team she was on. 

“Yes we’re a small school, small town,” she continued. “That kind of leadership and heart and drive to be the best is what’s given her that success.”

Marlatt’s work ethic is second to none, Peppin noted. She never saw Jayden give less than a “1,000” percent in practice or games in her career. 

Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt.“She’s a super hard worker and extremely modest for the kind of skill she possesses and the success she’s had,” Peppin said. “Her teammates think it’s amazing to be on her team.”

Marlatt’s volleyball skills caught the eye of at least one of her conference opponents’ coaches back in junior high. Ron Stremlow was performing one of his many coaching duties for Fife Lake Forest Area when he first saw Jayden on the volleyball court.

“I could tell then this girl was somebody special,” said Stremlow, who became one of the winningest coaches in state volleyball history with the Warriors. “When she got in high school, it just took off.

“She puts the time into it, and she works hard,” Stremlow continued. “Kids like that get what they deserve – they work for it.”

Stremlow, now retired, also acknowledged he’s enjoyed being able to watch the hard-throwing Marlatt on the softball field the last couple of seasons as Forest Area hosted the Cardinals consecutively due to JoBurg’s lack of a home field.

It’s something he’ll have to travel to do this year though, as JoBurg is scheduled to host the Warriors on April 15.

The Cardinals also will host a Regional on their new field June 8. The winners of District play at Rogers City, Harbor Springs, St. Ignace and Gaylord St. Mary will participate.

To play in the Regional, the Cards will have to emerge from the Rogers City District featuring the host Hurons, Atlanta, Hillman, Onaway, and Posen.

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) Johannesburg-Lewiston’s Jayden Marlatt drives a pitch during softball season. (2) Cardinals’ 1,000-point scorer Marlatt sets up for a free throw attempt. (3) Also a standout in the fall, Marlatt prepares to connect during volleyball season. (4) Marlatt celebrates a trophy win during last season’s Semifinals softball run with parents (and coaches) Kim and Ryan Marlatt. (Action shots by Dylan Jespersen/Petoskey News-Review; family photo by Breya Domke.)