By Mark Blentlinger
Schoolcraft’s volleyball team ended a run to the Division 3 state championship with a Nov. 23 loss to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Center’s Kestrels at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.
The Eagles in the semifinal a day earlier had won the right to compete in the championship game by knocking out the Saginaw Valley Lutheran Chargers in a convincing win in three sets: 25-10, 25-11 and 25-12.
The Schoolcraft and Monroe teams met on the same court five years ago, also with the Kestrels on the winning end of the match. This Eagle squad hoped to avenge that loss, not only for themselves, but for the 2014 team. If successful, they would bring home the Eagles’ second state championship. The first was in 2008.
Instead, the Eagles lost in one of the most hotly contested contests in all four of the divisions competing in the state finals.
They came into the match with a record of 47-6-1 and were the SAC champion. The Kestrels came with a 48-2 record and were the champions of the Huron League. They had overcome the Beavers from Beaverton 3-0, with sets of 25-20, 25-17 and 25-7 to advance to the championship.
The Eagles jumped out to a big 10-4 lead before Kestrels Coach Karen O’Brien called a time out to give her athletes a small breather and to get calmed down. On the other side, Coach Erin Onken was telling her girls, “Keep up the pressure! Keep playing our game!” The Eagles seemed calm and collected, just taking it a point at a time. Monroe SMCC was able to come back in the set, tying the score at one point 16-16. The Eagles continued to stay the course. They were able to keep focused and continued to feed off the strong fan base that came to support them. Andelyn Simkins placed a soft shot that bounced off of three Kestrels to go out of bounds, giving the Eagles Set 1, 27-25.
In Set 2, the Kestrels were able to string together some points and jumped out to a quick lead 6-3. The score kept bouncing back and forth, but the Kestrels seemed to always find a way to stay one point ahead of the Eagles. Monroe was able to fight its way to the win in set 2, 25-21, knotting the total at 1-1.
Set 3 was again back-to-back points, with one team going up by a point, then back to a tie. Each team struggled to pull away. At this level, both teams were in the finals because of their excellent communication, great defense and ball placement. Andelyn Simkins showed why she was named runnerup in the Michigan Miss Volleyball nomination and a future WMU Bronco with some of her placement kills.
Schoolcraft gained some serious momentum and pulled away, stringing five solid points, making it 21-16, until SMCC called a timeout to gather themselves. Schoolcraft maintained the point distance. Andelyn Simkins again placed a soft kill right on the floor, leaving three Kestrels looking at each other. That point sealed the set for the Eagles, 25-19. The match was now 2-1, in favor of the Purple and Gold.
Set 4, SMCC struck hard and early, knowing it had to win the set in order to force a tiebreaker. If the Eagles were able to seal the win in set 4, then they would capture the Division 3 State Championship. The score was once again close, within a point back and forth. No one was able to pull away until the Kestrels opened it up, notching the score at 25-18 and forcing a tiebreaking 5th set.
Set 5 would decide the Division 3 Volleyball State Championship. Both fan bases screamed, waved pom poms and chanted fight songs to help their team get fired up.
The arena watched two very talented volleyball teams play their hearts out, spiking and diving for the ball. The Eagles at one point were down 3-6, but were able to come back and make it 7-6. The Kestrels forced some errors on the Eagles, bringing the score to 10-10 in the 15-point set. The Eagles went up 12-11, when SMCC called their final time out.
Both teams battled hard and by that point in the match, extremely tired. The Eagles fell hard in the tough tie-breaker set, 12-15 to take the Division 3 State runner-up title with a record of 48-7-1 for the season.
After the teams were awarded their medals and trophies, Eagles Coach Onken said, “We can tell they studied film on us knowing where the weak areas and strong areas were. The game came down to a serve-and-receive battle where both teams made their share of errors. If we were to play them again, maybe we beat them in five. These two schools would go more than three sets every time. We have a ton of respect for SMCC. I feel we came out ready to battle.
“I am very proud of this team and think of all of these girls as my family.”