Senior-driven Bucks Living the 'Dream'

By Wes Morgan
Special for

October 4, 2016

Buchanan may never have another class of volleyball players like the one winding down its final high school season for the Class B third-ranked Bucks this fall.

In her 13th year coaching the team, Lisa Holok isn’t taking it for granted.

“They’re insanely special, said Holok, whose program has produced a number of college players over the years. “We’ve had our eye on this group since the eighth grade just because they are so special.”

Headlining the senior group is outside hitter Franki Strefling, who is headed to Eastern Michigan University next year on a full-ride scholarship. But she’s only one of seven seniors to have raised Buchanan’s profile over the last few seasons.

The squad set single-season records for wins in 2014 (46) and 2015 (48). The Bucks have lost only 23 games over the last four years.

Buchanan did experience a disappointing Regional Semifinal loss in 2015 (swept in three) and a 3-1 loss in the Regional championship match in 2014 — both at the hands of Battle Creek Harper Creek.

But the Bucks, and this senior group in particular, think now is their time. They’re 33-3 and well seasoned after competing (and winning) some of the most talent-packed tournaments on the west side of the state and in northern Indiana.

“They all really love the game,” Holok said. “The communication between them is almost seamless. We always knew we could make a run. We expected it and we work for it. This summer when we had our workouts, it was a different feel. I think it was more of a sense of urgency for them just because it’s the final season.

“Although they are super serious about volleyball, they are also fun loving and goofy. They’re like family; they’re like sisters. They fight like sisters. They make up like sisters. Behind the scenes, the talk of where they want to end up has been very real for them this year.”

Most of the Bucks’ regular-season matches in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph League in recent years have been tests of discipline. Winning by large margins, Buchanan had to manufacture competitions within competitions to remain engaged — not allowing another point after building a big lead, not committing service errors, not playing down to a lesser opponent’s level.

That hasn’t been an issue this year, however. Nor has needing extra motivation.

“Leaving regionals last year with another loss to the same team for the second year in a row, we knew we had work to do,” defensive specialist Taylor Reed said. “We set our goals high for our last time around. One major goal we set out for our team was to beat our rival, Harper Creek, which we've already accomplished in an earlier tournament in the season. Winning state, of course, is our overall goal.”

It has been a long road to finally be in the position to possibly achieve that goal.

“Over the past four years, the seven of us have been through everything together,” Liz Kuntz said. “And when I say everything, I mean everything from heartbreaks and hard conditioning days, to devastating injuries. I'm so thankful to not only call them my teammates, but some of my closest friends.”

The personalities are as different as their roles on the court.

Strefling is the one who “keeps it real” and is willing to say the things out loud that might be difficult for her teammates to hear. But Kuntz said Strefling’s “impeccable” understanding of the game makes the advice easy to take.

Alex Tobler is a fierce competitor but is emotionally uplifting when her teammates need it. Setter Britta Mollberg rarely loses her cool as the offense’s quarterback.

Reed takes pride in bruises, and Taylor Strauss keeps everyone focused on daily and long-term goals. Andrea Blair doesn’t let anyone off the hook in practice, constantly pushing her teammates to be better. But she’s the first to provide levity when necessary.

“This team is what we like to call ‘The Dream Team,’" Reed said, “not because of our winning record, but more because of the chemistry we have. We know all of each other's strengths and weaknesses because most of us have been playing together from elementary YMCA ball to club and now high school ball. Five of the seven seniors we have now all started on varsity as freshmen.

“We know exactly whom we are playing next to, and it all just flows together. It's definitely an advantage to have this bond that not many teams can say they have.”

Super Seniors

(Statistics prior to Saturday)

• Taylor Strauss (libero) — 345 digs, 98 percent serving and 4.7 digs per game. All-region player in 2015 and all-league in 2013, 2014, 2015.

• Franki Strefling (outside hitter) — 351 kills, 214 digs, all-region in 2013, 2014 and 2015, all-conference 2013, 2014 and 2015 and all-state in 2014 and 2015; broke school single-season kill record last year, four-year team captain.

• Taylor Reed (defensive specialist) — 185 digs, all-conference in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

• Britta Mollberg (setter) — 239 digs, 845 assists, broke school single-season and career assist records, all-conference in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

• Liz Kuntz (middle blocker)— 200 kills, 48 blocks, all-conference in 2015.

• Andrea Bair (middle blocker) — 19 blocks.

• Alex Tobler (outside hitter) — 225 digs, 365 kills, 39 aces, team captain.

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Buchanan's Britta Mollberg (8) and Andrea Bair (6) wall off a kill attempt earlier this season. (Middle) Libero Taylor Strauss dives for a dig. (Photos courtesy of the South Bend Tribune/Michael Caterina.)

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

By Tom Spencer
Special for

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.)