Sarafa Among All-Time Marian Stars, Greatest Setters in MHSAA History

By Keith Dunlap
Special for MHSAA.com

September 29, 2022

BLOOMFIELD HILLS – Mayssa Cook said she had a suggestion for then 11-year-old Ava Sarafa upon first seeing Sarafa training on a volleyball court.

Greater DetroitCook knew Sarafa already had the tools to be an elite volleyball player, given her height and skills, but put a figurative bug in her ear while watching Sarafa go from doing hitting drills to setting.

“At the time she was a hitter,” Cook said. “After she set a few balls, we just kind of had a conversation that, ‘you should maybe take setting more seriously.’ Obviously from that point on, she did.”

No kidding.

Now a senior for annual state powerhouse Bloomfield Hills Marian, Sarafa is more than just the latest Miss Volleyball Award finalist and future Division I college player to come through the program.

Taking it further, even a program like Marian’s hasn’t quite seen a setter like Sarafa.

Earlier this season, Sarafa surpassed 4,000 assists for her career to become the 16th player in state history to eclipse that mark.

As of Tuesday, Sarafa had a little more than 4,300 career assists and said she has a goal of eclipsing the 5,000 mark, although the state record of 5,790 set by Novi’s Erin O’Leary might be out of reach.

Sarafa was the main distributor for Marian’s Division 1 championship-winning team last year and next month plans to officially sign to play in college for Kentucky.

Cook said Sarafa’s high school career got going right away when she pulled off the rare feat of cracking the starting lineup as a freshman.

“Very few setters really start their freshman year on varsity and play the entire time,” said Cook, who is in her fifth season as Marian’s head coach. “Ava had a composure and a maturity about her as a freshman, and with skills to back it up, that allowed her to be able to take on that role, and do it very well. Four years later, she’s been that much better every year.”

Sarafa, far right, celebrates a point with her teammates during the championship match win. After taking to heart the suggestion to become a setter, Sarafa said it did take a few months to adjust to the nuances of the position.

However, it didn’t take her long at all to fall in love with it.

“I think the thing I really love about being a setter is being able to help benefit your teammates and put them in a really good spot to score,” Sarafa said. “Also being able to touch the ball every single play. It keeps you very involved in the momentum of the sport, and being able to run the court and know what’s going on with everyone. Being able to know your hitters personally (and) what they appreciate on the court has really touched me in a way. Having that control, pressure and insight on the game made me love it.”

Sarafa also embraces the strategic thinking and anticipation required to be a setter, which differs greatly from the demands of being a hitter or a libero.

“Setting, you need to look with peripheral vision, you need to learn where the blockers are and if they are jumping with your hitters,” Sarafa said. “I think it does (require) excess training to develop and work on.”

Marian is the two-time reigning champion in Division 1 and up to 27-0 this fall as naturally the heavy favorite to make it a three-peat come November. Sarafa actually is one of two Miss Volleyball candidates on the roster; Ella Schomer also is in the mix for the award given to the state's top senior.

Sarafa admitted it’s been a bit different going for three championships in a row with the huge target on Marian’s back, especially since the Mustangs as of Sept. 22 were ranked No. 4 nationally in the USA Today/American Volleyball Coaches Association’s Super 25.

“We need everyone to give 100-percent effort to succeed,” Sarafa said. “It’s not dependent on one person. It depends on everyone giving in to what we’re doing. When the playoffs start, we’re going to see teams that are very competitive and have a lot of great talent on their teams. Everyone just needs to realize that ‘this is it; what you’re doing right now matters.’ It’s just a big team effort, and we need to work for it.”

With one of the country’s top prep setters on Marian’s side once again, it will take one talented team to prevent a three-peat for the Mustangs.

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at keithdunlap78@gmail.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Marian’s Ava Sarafa prepares to serve during last season’s Division 1 Final against Ann Arbor Skyline. (Middle) Sarafa, far right, celebrates a point with her teammates during the championship match win.

After 2021 Runner-Up Finish, North Branch Ends 2022 Back On Top

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

November 19, 2022

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.

The Broncos’ Adrienne Greschaw (1) sets as Cadillac awaits the kill attempt. 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’s Carissa Musta (9) powers a hit toward a North Branch block. 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.

Click for the full box score.

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.