The thought of the North Branch volleyball program being ahead of schedule when it comes to success is difficult to fathom.
North Branch has been among the top programs in the state for 15 years, including an incredible 10-year run that included eight trips to the MHSAA Semifinals, four runner-up finishes and three Class B Finals titles (2009, 2014 and 2016).
The Broncos have won 17 straight District titles and are 53-0 over four seasons as members of the Blue Water Area Conference. They have arrived, and stuck around.
But this year’s results and roster indicate even more success is on the way, and it could be happening very soon.
“I wouldn’t even know what to think about it, to be honest with you,” North Branch’s lone senior, Gracie Hyde, said of the possibility of getting back to the MHSAA Finals this season. “I guess it would be shocking because we’re such a young team.”
Half of North Branch’s 16 players are sophomores, and when you add in the two freshmen, underclassmen make up the majority of the team. Despite that, the Broncos are 42-8 heading into the Regional tournament, which begins Tuesday night in Mount Morris, and they didn’t drop a set in conference play. The eight losses came almost exclusively to ranked teams, and the only losses outside of Division 1 were to the No. 1 (Pontiac Notre Dame Prep) and No. 3 (Detroit Country Day) teams in Division 2.
“I knew we’d have a really good team, but we’re still very, very young,” North Branch coach Jim Fish said. “Many times, we’ll have five sophomores on the floor at the same time, but they’re so skilled that I don’t even look at them like that. We’ve won three state titles, but this will be my most talented team. Next year, we’ll be extremely talented. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to win anything.”
The key stat leaders for the Broncos are almost exclusively from the Class of 2024. Three sophomores – Alana Deshetsky (first with 287 kills), Clara Gyomory (third with 216) and Kaela Chingwa (fourth with 182) – are among the team’s top four attackers. Chingwa leads the team in blocks with 97, Haily Green leads the team in digs with 720, and Adrienne Greschaw leads the team in assists with 1,043.
Add in junior attackers Bailey Gormley (264 kills) and Natasha Bickel (177), and Hyde’s defensive prowess and skill at the service line (92.1 percent success, 88 aces), and the Broncos are every bit the threat their No. 5 ranking in Division 2 would suggest.
“I definitely think we’re ahead of schedule,” Deshetsky said. “We had a couple bumps in the road, like injuries and girls being sick, but we have five great hitters on our team, and you can’t just shut down one girl.”
For the players, the speed of the success may come as a bit of a surprise, but it’s something they’ve long thought was possible.
“We’ve always known that the grade below me and our grade has always worked well together,” Bickel said. “We grew up playing AAU ball, and watching them all grow has been amazing. We've all improved so much through the years.”
As they came up through the youth ranks in North Branch, they not only grew together, but also watched as Fish’s program was, for the most part, dominant. He took over in 2000, one year after the Broncos had won a single match, and well before any of the current players were born.
The District win streak began in 2006, and by 2007, North Branch had made its way to the Class A Finals weekend, starting the 10-year stretch of consistent trips to Battle Creek.
“They were like my idols,” Bickel said. “I always loved watching them play. Coach asked me to be a ball girl when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, and it was like a dream come true.”
While the program has remained strong, 2016 was the last time North Branch won a Regional title, with Notre Dame Prep ending its season each of the past four years in the Regional Final. The 2020 team was the first since 2007 that didn’t feature at least one player who had played in the Semifinals.
Last year, with multiple freshmen on the floor, the Broncos came as close as they have in the past four years to knocking off the Irish, losing 16-14 in the fifth set to end the season. Now, they find themselves on the opposite side of the Division 2 bracket from Notre Dame Prep, and if they were to meet again, it would be in the Final.
“I want to get there so bad,” Green said. “Last year, in the Regional Final, that game was so much fun. I keep thinking that I want to get back to a game like that.”
There’s plenty of work left for both teams to do in order to make that happen, but Fish does know that getting to Battle Creek this year, even if it doesn’t result in a title, would help put the program on schedule to accomplish its goals in the near future.
“Nobody has been down there,” he said. “They’ve seen their sisters play there, and they’ve seen pictures and heard about it, but it’s really important to get down there. If we can get there and compete – I'm not going to say never, because why not us – but, realistically, if we can just get there, that will really fuel their desire to get back.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Broncos sophomore setter Adrienne Greschaw and sophomore middle Kaela Chingwa put up a block during a match this fall. (Middle) North Branch sophomore Alana Deshetsky sends a kill attempt toward the other side. (Bottom) Senior Grace Hyde digs with junior Paige Hurd backing her up. (Photos courtesy of Krystal Ann Photography.)
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.
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 (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.
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.