Young Broncos Ahead of Schedule in Hunt for Division 2 Crown

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 9, 2021

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.” 

"North Branch volleyball"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 CostanzoPaul 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 [email protected] 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.)

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.)