BATTLE CREEK – You could forgive Lillie Laney for not immediately processing what she and her Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart volleyball teammates accomplished Saturday.
In fact, you could forgive anyone who was in Kellogg Arena to watch the Irish comeback in the Division 4 Final for not being quite sure what they just witnessed.
Sacred Heart looked all but done after two sets, but came roaring back to defeat Athens 14-25, 13-25, 25-23, 27-25, 15-11 and claim its first-ever Finals title.
“I can’t even remember what the last point was,” the Sacred Heart senior said. “It’s all just a blur. I just remember us getting the point and everybody dog-piling.”
The last point was an Athens attack that went just long, and as soon as the line judge’s flag went up, the Sacred Heart bench met Laney and her teammates in the center of the court to start the celebration.
Sacred Heart won the match’s final six points, completing a third straight comeback in a must-win set, and finishing off what had seemed improbable about an hour earlier.
“I feel like at the beginning when we were down by a lot, we started getting down on ourselves,” Sacred Heart junior libero Bridget Ruiz said. “In the third set, we kind of were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to pick it up here.’ And we just kind of kept it going and going and going and going.”
The match was the first five-setter of the season for the Irish (44-7-6), who had advanced to the Division 4 Semifinals a year ago.
“That’s the way a state championship match should be,” Irish coach Krista Davis said. “It should be a fight to the end. It should be just a back and forth. I don’t think any team really made mistakes. In my recollection, I just felt like it was who could get the ball and just hit it the hardest. It was pound, pound, pound, pound. That was a good championship match.”
Athens led the majority of the final set, before a Laney block put her team up 12-11. Another block in combination with sophomore setter Sophie Hauck gave the Irish a cushion, and sophomore outside hitter Chelsea Lynch served out the final two points, which ended with Athens attacks going long.
“I always thought it was possible, but that was the final push,” Laney said. “That was the, ‘We gotta go, we gotta get moving. We have this now. It’s in our hands. It’s within reach.’”
Laney finished the match with 19 kills and seven blocks. The 5-foot-10 middle hitter had just two errors on 39 attacks in the match.
Eliza Pieratt had 17 assists and 17 digs for the Irish, while Hauck had 24 assists and four blocks. Ruiz added 29 digs, Angel Brown had 10 kills and 16 digs, and Lynch had 13 digs.
Most of that came over the final three sets, as Athens was dominant to start the match, and looked well on its way to claiming a first Finals title of its own.
Athens’ varied attack with setter Alaina Brubaker feeding hitters Kylie Quist, Kamryn Parlin, Jocelyn Hall and Piper Porter had Sacred Heart reeling through the first two sets.
“I think we started out super strong, and collectively we were playing very, very well,” Athens coach Jacy Cole said. “Then, third set, they started getting the momentum and took that third set. We came back in the fourth set and I thought we did well, just made a few communication errors, I think, that kind of rattled us a little bit. We couldn’t quite get our footing back under us. Fifth set, I think they just were more offensive than we were, and they were very good defensively at the net.”
Quist led the Athens attack with 20 kills, while Hall had 18, Porter had 17 and Parlin had 10. Brubaker finished the day with 56 assists and 19 digs. Parlin had a massive game defensively, as well, adding 23 digs and nine total blocks. The other attackers also chipped in defensively, as Hall had 24 digs, Piper had 18 and Quist had 14.
Athens was playing in a Final for the first time, as it wrapped up a season that featured the program’s first-ever Regional title. Of course, each of the past two years, Athens had lost in the Regional Final to eventual Division 4 champion Battle Creek St. Philip, with their match going to five sets in 2021.
“Right now, our team probably doesn’t feel like it, but we’ve done so much this year together,” Hall said. “It’s one of the best feelings ever, and it’s something that we’re going to remember for a very long time together. All the memories and the history that we’ve made this year with the support of the community right there behind us. They’re a huge part of this. We’re just thankful for everything.”
PHOTOS (Top) Players converge on Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart coach Krista Davis after she receives the Division 4 championship trophy Saturday. (Middle) The Irish’s Lillie Laney (9) follows through on a kill attempt with Athens’ Piper Porter blocking. (Below) Sacred Heart’s Angel Brown (23) puts up a block as the ball reaches the net.
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.