Veteran Eagles Soar to 1st Semi since '79

November 18, 2015

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

GRAND RAPIDS – The Grand Rapids Christian volleyball team has enjoyed one of its best seasons in school history.

One main reason for the Eagles’ unbridled success: Experience.

Grand Rapids Christian entered this fall with a wealth of it, including one four-year varsity player and a core of three-year varsity players.

“We have six seniors on this team and they have a lot of experience,” Eagles fifth-year coach Tiffanie Gates said. “They have played together for a long time, in club and high school.”

The veteran leadership has been beneficial in their historic run to the Class A Semifinals. Thursday’s match against top-ranked Novi will be No. 3 Grand Rapids Christian’s first at this late round of the MHSAA Tournament since 1979.

Grand Rapids Christian (49-4) defeated No. 2 Mattawan 3-1 (25-21, 18-25, 25-23, 25-21) in Tuesday night’s Class A Quarterfinal at Caledonia High School.

“This season has been a blast,” said senior outside hitter Sam McLean, who’s been on the varsity all four years and earned all-state second-team honors last season. “We’ve been playing so well together as a team, and we’ve been playing some of our best games lately. It’s fun because we’re super close, and we’re friends outside of the court. It’s been a real good time.”

The seniors, which also include returning all-state first-team outside hitter Dylynn Otte, plus Ellen Long, Jessa VanderWeide, Maria Bolt and Megan Noordewier, have provided a calming influence to the underclassmen. 

When things have gotten tough, they’ve persevered and proceeded with a confident demeanor. 

“Any outside factors that get in our way, like a huge crowd or a team that is good, our seniors have calmed our players down,” McLean said. “We emphasize to our younger players to focus on us, and when we’re down or struggling, our seniors have been huge in helping our team out.”

The biggest evidence of a senior-dominated team has been its ability to not give an inch. They’ve developed a killer instinct, refusing to let other teams gain momentum.

The Eagles didn’t drop a set through 10 conference matches en route to an Ottawa-Kent Conference White championship and have lost only one set during the MHSAA Tournament.

“In this sport, it is whoever finishes and sees matches through,” Gates said. “I attribute that to our senior leadership with not letting up and not riding that rollercoaster that you see sometimes in high school volleyball.” 

In last week’s Regional Final against No. 9 Hudsonville, the Eagles were up 2-0, but on the verge of losing the third set down 21-18.

“They rallied and finished it in three,” Gates said. “We’ve had conversations about not expecting it to go that way from here on out and the further you go the harder it gets, so they are prepared for it not to be that way. They have definitely worked hard to finish strong every time.”

Grand Rapids Christian has drawn motivation from two straight years of early exits in District play. They have refused to allow history to repeat itself.

It has changed their mental approach to every match. 

“It’s been our theme,” McLean said. “We even break it down to one point at a time and one set at a time. Last year I think we looked ahead too much, and that’s why we ended so early. This year we’ve barely looked at the state finals. 

“We’ve only looked at the next game and what we have to do to win the next one and the next one. That’s all we’ve been focusing on, and it helps a ton.” 

The seniors have dedicated themselves to making this season a memorable one.

“It’s a special year for all of us, and we want to go as far as we can,” McLean said. “A lot of the seniors won’t play in college, so this is their final games. I love our underclassmen because they want to do well for us. It’s really cool to see.”    

Added Gates: “The core group have been playing club together since they were 11 or 12, so it’s been a dream for them since they were little. You see it coming to fruition now, and it’s pretty neat. They are definitely motivated and driven.” 

On the court, Grand Rapids Christian doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. A balanced group of big hitters and solid blocking at the net have paced their attack.

“We have good ball control and defense,” Gates said. “And we’re pretty deep offensively. It’s difficult for teams to camp out on one hitter. We can definitely mix it up. I don’t think there’s a hole in our game so far.” 

The Eagles overcame a major hurdle when they swept perennial state powerhouse Grand Haven in the Regional Semifinal.  

The Bucs knocked Grand Rapids Christian out in the Quarterfinals in 2012 and entered this postseason ranked No. 5.

“We split with them in the regular season in tournament play so we knew their game and practiced for it,” Gates said. “It’s a fun little rivalry with them because it’s always been back and forth. It was an exciting and emotional match for us.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Christian players and coaches pose last week with their Class A Regional championship trophy. (Middle) Jessa VanderWeide, one of six seniors, prepares to unload a serve during a match earlier this fall. (Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Christian High School.)

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.)