St. Phil's Winning Ways Lead to Summer Celebration, Fall Anticipation

By Pam Shebest
Special for

August 24, 2021

BATTLE CREEK — Last season’s Division 4 championship gave Battle Creek St. Philip 11 over coach Vicky Groat’s 22 seasons leading the program.

Southwest CorridorBut those stats are a bit off. They do not include the three Class D titles she won as a player at St. Phil, giving her 14 overall.

“We won three state titles with Mom in ’83, ’84, ’85 and were in the final four in ’82,” Groat said.

“Mom” is Sheila Guerra, who led the Tigers to nine Finals championships while guiding the program from 1982-1997. Together, the mother-daughter duo has accounted for 20 of the school’s MHSAA-record 21 state volleyball titles. (The first was under coach Becky Emrich in 1979.) Those 21 championships, in fact, are more than twice as many as any other volleyball program in the state, and the Tigers’ 30 MHSAA Finals appearances are 17 more than the next best achiever.

That incredible success was recognized in July when Groat was named the National High School Athletic Coaches Association’s Volleyball Coach of the Year.

Guerra died in May 2006. But Mom was very much on Groat’s mind as she received her award. While accolades, awards and championships continue to pile up, Groat said her mother is the foundation for it all.

“Mom always encouraged me, and there are still things I do today that she did,” Groat said. “It may be old school, but it still works.”

And the Tigers will have another strong chance this fall to show how.

Plenty to celebrate

Groat did not tell her players that she was a finalist for the award but they found out anyway, said senior standout Brooke Dzwik, an all-state first-team outside hitter last season.

“(The players) went on this camping trip up to Leland and stayed in Coach (Laurie) Glass’ backyard,” Dzwik said. “We were also with Notre Dame Prep and Bronson. Four winning coaches.”

Battle Creek St. Philip volleyballDzwik said Bronson coach Jean LaClair spilled the beans, telling the players the news.

“(The other coaches) were teasing (Groat) about having a speech prepared and she was like ‘No way,’” Dzwik said.

Groat texted her players a picture of herself with the trophy, and during the first day of tryouts in August, the girls welcomed the coach with a few signs, a balloon, a card and Mountain Dew, “her favorite,” Dzwik said.

“We were just overjoyed because no one deserves it more than her.

“She walked in (to the gym) and I think she was pretty happy, but she doesn’t like the attention on her so she will never admit it.”

After her mom retired after the 1996-97 season, Groat took over, stepped away for 1999-2000 but then returned to direct the Tigers again for the last two decades.

No one, including Groat, expected her team to win the Division 4 title after starting last season with a 23-13 record, just nine athletes on the team and no junior varsity to draw from in case of injury.

“I begged (current senior) Alex Kersten to come out — she’s a cross country runner — and she did,” Groat said.

After a two-month delay because of the pandemic a year ago, practice was held outside at Battle Creek’s Bailey Park.

“We started off in the sand, and we were grateful that we were even allowed to get together and see everyone’s faces for the first time,” Dzwik said.

“It was awful at first, but (playing in sand) definitely made our legs stronger by the end of the season, and we were thankful for it.”

This year, expectations are much higher.

The Tigers lost just one player, Harleen Deol, to graduation and return five seniors also including Rachel Myers, Alexis Snyder and Bailey Fancher. Fancher made the all-state third team last season at libero.

“I feel more pressure now,” Dzwik said. “We didn’t have an amazing record last year and then pulled out a win.

“This year, we do have a (championship) win, so we placed a target on our backs.”

This season already includes a “first” for St. Phil.

“For the first time in St. Phil history, we have an eighth grader, Charli Greger (on varsity),” Groat said. “We were under 100 students last year, so we could have eighth graders play this year.

“Right now, we’re at 100 (students) so next year we won’t be able to have eighth graders.”

Other players are juniors Maddie Hoelscher and Kate Doyle and sophomores Rylee Altman and Makenzee Grimm.

Groat also has a junior varsity team for the first time in two years – a really good thing, she said.

“Take out the five seniors next year and I’m left with four players if I don’t have a JV team,” she said. “We brought eighth graders up to the JV team with four freshmen.

“Never thought we’d have to do that, but we want a program. I couldn’t imagine not having a St. Phil volleyball team. That would be a sad day.”

Family tradition

While a student at St. Phil, Groat was coached by her mother in volleyball and track. In addition, Groat’s father Lou coached basketball at the school.

Her parents as her coaches was not always an easy combination for a young teen.

“It’s always the coach’s kid who gets the brunt of it.” Groat said. “I still remember one of my friends and I were fighting during volleyball and my mom was blaming me. I was like, what about her?

“In track if she had no one to run something, ‘Vicky, you’re going to do it.’ But it was fun.”

Battle Creek St. Philip volleyballGroat, who is also principal and athletic director at the school, credits her parents for not only her coaching success, but her life skills.

“I learned from the best.” she said. “I try to carry both their philosophies in the way they treated people.

“My mom was tough on kids, but if anybody needed anything, she was the first one there. She pushed hard and had high expectations, but she really was a softie inside. People still don’t believe me on that.”

Groat relies on one other person who is like family: assistant coach Angela Williams Frost.

“We call her Willi,” Groat said. “She’s been a great assistant for 18 years. She was a head coach at Springport and could be a head coach anywhere in the state.

“She’s very talented and smart. It makes my job easier knowing that Willi is there. I’ll be in practice and someone will come to the door for me and Willi is there to take over.”

July’s recognition was a total surprise, Groat said, deflecting any accolades. But it also can be regarded as deserved praise for her work teaching an abundance of lessons she learned herself as part of the volleyball program and the Guerra coaching tree.

“It’s just so much about my kids, the kids who have been here and who have played in our system,” she said. “It’s not a big school; we have our traditions, and they buy into it. It’s been great.

“Hopefully over the years we, as coaches, have taught them the important things in life, the life lessons that they will carry on. Sports are an important part of it, but there are other things involved.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Battle Creek St. Philip coach Vicky Groat holds up a picture of her mother, Sheila Guerra, with whom she’s combined to lead the Tigers to 20 of their 21 MHSAA Finals volleyball championships. (Middle) Senior Brooke Dzwik shows some of the signs she and teammates made to celebrate Groat’s national Coach of the Year recognition. (Below) Then-junior Bailey Fancher serves during last season’s Division 4 title match. (Top and middle photos by Pam Shebest.)

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.)