By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
MANISTIQUE – Finally, the time has arrived to put volleyball on the sports map at Manistique High School.
The Emeralds will play in their first Regional tournament Tuesday when they face perennial power Calumet in Class C at Gladstone High School. They achieved that pinnacle by upending Gwinn 3-1 Thursday, in Ishpeming.
Under coach Amy Nixon, the Emeralds take an 18-0 record into the Regional. Their first District title came on the heels of their first Mid-Peninsula Conference championship, which means a volleyball banner finally will be hung in the high school gym and a couple of trophies will be displayed in the school's trophy case for the first time.
"The girls have become almost like rock stars," said Manistique athletic director Rob Ryan, noting the sport had very little success during the previous 20 years. "It's been a great journey. They now have crowds that are similar to boys and girls basketball, and the community is getting involved."
A fan bus of 50 students attended the District title game, which was a two-hour drive each way. Nixon was told by several people at Ishpeming that her student section was the loudest they had ever seen in Ishpeming. The team received a police escort back into Manistique late Thursday night.
"I'm proud of our students, family and friends," said Nixon. To which Ryan added, "everyone in the community is buzzing about it."
The success is a much-needed boost for the school and the community. The area is still reeling from the closure of its paper mill, its' biggest employer, earlier this year. And athletic success has been rare in most sports over the years as the Emeralds compete in the M-PC, regarded as one of the most competitive conferences in the state, in all sports.
Football was 1-8 in the fall, so volleyball has provided the important ingredient of success in Manistique. "Volleyball is something everybody is talking about," said Ryan.
"For 10 years volleyball has not been on the map at Manistique. We just were not competitive. It was very quiet in the gym. It was dark and depressing. Now we have raucous crowds. It has really done a 360. It is unbelievable."
With seven seniors on the team, including three-year starters Lexi Carlson, Machaela Hinkson and Sydney Chartier, the Emeralds have been groomed to succeed this fall. Carlson, a first-team M-PC standout, had 13 kills and three blocks Thursday while Chartier had 20 assists and Brooke Whiskin had 23 of Manistique's 91 digs.
"Our defense has improved so much," said Nixon, indicating the Emeralds changed formations from a man-up defense to a rotation system this year. "We don't let a whole lot of balls drop to the floor," said Nixon.
While Carlson, who joined the varsity late in her freshman season, is the leader, Nixon said, "we are a complete team. We are so strong mentally and physically. They have each other's back. There is no girl drama. This is really a well-rounded team. We have five hitters who get kills on a consistent basis.
"We are a tough-attacking offensive power."
Nixon, in her eighth season at the helm, is a native of Kingsford and spent two years as volleyball coach at Gwinn before coming to Manistique. She was a student assistant on the Northern Michigan University volleyball team and has used her experience, along with attending clinics, to instill success in Manistique.
"It's been an amazing ride," said Nixon, indicating the journey began with a five-set loss to Gwinn in the Class C District a year ago. "The girls were heart-broken when they lost last year," she said.
With nine returnees from that team, Nixon got the girls together in April and discussed goals and what the future could look like if the players were willing to put in the time and effort.
With her husband Tim conducting strength and conditioning programs, the girls began to reach for this season's success with the help of open gyms and small-scale skill sessions during the four months prior to official practice starting in August, when they "hit the ground running," said Nixon.
"It has been grueling," said Nixon, noting team bonding has been a focus. "For six months, volleyball has been our life. Their hearts have been 100 percent in it every day. They have been so determined to make it happen. They focused on achieving something great this year."
Changing the mind-set after so many years of struggling was vital. "I set high expectations for my team. I would not accept being mediocre," said Nixon, who strived to have the players give their best effort at all times. As the triumphs began building this season, Nixon said, "it proved to them what they were capable of doing."
The experienced core of the team has helped give the Emeralds an edge this season. "Their court vision is very cool for me to see," said Nixon. After being previously happy to just get the ball over the net, now the Emeralds set targets for their shots.
"They put it in specific spots. Their instincts are so good," said Nixon.
Ryan said this squad's success also occurs off the court, noting their team GPA is 3.7 or 3.8. "This is a great group of girls. They never have a discipline problem. They deserve everything they are getting,” he said.
"Getting that first volleyball banner on the gym wall will be very emotional. To finally clear this hurdle (District title) is really rewarding."
The Emeralds have not seen Calumet this season, but Manistique hosted the Copper Country power in the Class C Quarterfinal last year and received some insight into the team.
"The girls are really focused and will stay the course," said Nixon. "We had a motto (when practice began), Battle Creek or bust," she said of the MHSAA Finals site. "It started out as a joke, but as we have experienced success the motto is not so much a joke. It is reality."
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Manistique senior Allie Nagy follows through on a kill attempt during a victory this season over Iron Mountain. (Middle) Lexi Carlson (7) goes high to set up a block. (Below) The Emeralds celebrate during their victory. (Photos courtesy of Manistique athletic department/Jeffrey Bolm.)
Cadillac’s girls volleyball team is quite accustomed to getting flack from opposing teams’ student sections about their socks.
That’s not likely to continue much longer though, thanks to the Vikings’ performance on the court and major college teams becoming similarly equipped.
And their new warm-up shirts tell it all.
“My team has always worn knee socks,” said 23-year veteran Cadillac coach Michelle Brines. “So people will make fun of the team, or they’ll cheer ‘put your socks down’ and this kind of thing.
“This year we finally got shirts saying ‘Fear the Socks,’” she continued. “The knee socks were in back in the day, and we’ve always worn them.”
Now college powerhouse clubs like Texas and Nebraska wear knee socks. The Cornhuskers just went back to them last season — a year calumniating with an appearance in the national championship match. Nebraska and Texas regularly make runs to and beyond the NCAA Elite Eight.
Under Brines, Cadillac too is used to deep postseason runs including six MHSAA Semifinal appearances. The Vikings made their first appearance in the Division 2 Final last November, falling to North Branch.
Cadillac is off to a 17-3-2 start this fall preparing for Division 1 competition, as they moved into that division for this season. The Vikings have their sights on another Big North Conference championship too as they prepare for District play in Grand Haven at the end of October. Cadillac is 4-1 in league play.
The Vikings have been led again this year by all-state middle hitter Carissa Musta. The 6-foot-4 senior is handling the pressure well. Teams celebrating a block of Musta’s hit are quickly shaken off, according to Brines.
“It’s got to be tough when somebody gets all crazy because they just blocked you, but Carissa is very composed,” Brines said. “She never comes off the floor.
“She’s pretty darn good in the back row,” Brines continued. “I am very impressed with her growth and composure.”
Musta topped the 1,000-kill mark earlier this season and became the school’s career leader in blocks this week in a three-set win over Petoskey.
Senior Makenzie Johns, a 6-1 outside hitter, is also an offensive powerhouse for the Vikings. Senior setter Cassie Jenema comes through regularly with kills in addition to her strong defense and serving.
“We have 11 players on our team, and they all play an important role,” Brines noted. “Even though we have a few that really, really stand out, we are not going to be successful if we’re not all doing our job.”
The Vikings also regularly feature three sophomores: Ari Bryant, Grace Zubak and Sophia Clough. All three were on the freshman team last year because of the team’s depth.
Cadillac shared the Big North championship last year with Traverse City Central. They both suffered home losses to each other but picked up road wins. That trend has continued this year as Central handed Cadillac its lone league loss in five sets on the Vikings’ court. They will play again Oct. 4 in Traverse City.
Brines is pleased with her team’s progress at midseason. The Vikings host Alpena on Wednesday and then battle in the Portage Invitational.
“I have never had a season moving people around as much as I have,” Brines said. “I expect to see a lot of growth out of my team as we go into the second half of the season.”
Brines hopes the Vikings will make a run to the Final again this fall so she can become accustomed to a new routine.
“We finally broke through and won that (Friday Semifinal) night game and got to play the next day, which had never happened,” Brines recalled. “I didn’t really know what to do because usually I was going out for dinner with my team because we lost.”
The knee socks are the Vikings' signature also at the freshman and junior varsity levels. “We have all of our levels wear them — it is kind of our thing,” Brines pointed out. “When we walk in we have knee socks, people know we’re Cadillac.
“It’s kind of fun,” she continued. “I am old school.”
Crew socks are allowed in practice, however. Brines and the Vikings seriously considered getting away from their long-standing tradition.
“I used to make them wear them in practice,” Brines said. “One of my players that went on to coach some college and be a head coach herself said ‘Coach, you can’t do (stop wearing them) because that’s what you kind of always done and nobody else wears knee socks.’”
A spokesperson for Nebraska said there’s no real reason Nebraska went back to wearing long socks beyond player preference, and that it seems like that trend is coming back in volleyball.
“Very cool,” Brines said with a smile when she learned of the Cornhuskers response. “So basically, we never went out of style.”
Tom 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) Cadillac's McKenzie Johns unloads on an attempt during a match. (Middle) Cassie Jenema sets for a teammate during a match. (Below) Ari Bryant keeps the ball in play. (Photos by Marc Vieau/Cadillac News).