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Battle-tested Bronson ousts No. 1-ranked Monroe St. Mary CC in semifinals, will play for a fourth straight title

By: Matthew B. Mowery, November 15, 2018, 11:45 pm

BATTLE CREEK — If you’ve been there before, you know how to deal with the pressure.

If you haven’t, well …

Three-time reigning Class C champion Bronson has been through the grinder of playing in the pressure-cooker of the final weekend of the season, and that showed in the way that the Vikings handled adversity in Thursday’s five-set Division 3 semifinal match.

For No. 1-ranked Monroe St. Mary, it was the first time in Battle Creek for all of the players and, well …

Bronson pulled away at the end of the match, running away with Set 4 and Set 5, winning 23-25, 25-21, 20-25, 25-18, 15-4, to return to the championship match for a fourth straight year.

The Vikings (57-6) will face No. 6 Unionville-Sebewaing (44-4-4) in Saturday’s Division 3 championship match at noon.

The experience helped, enough that the Vikings handled their own business, without their coach having to do it for them.

“I do (think it helped). I don’t think I even went in the timeout between games, because I think they (the seniors) needed to take care of business, and I have leaders who know how to do that. I don’t even need to go in there,” Bronson coach Jean LaClair said. “Sometimes, I’ve just gotta let them handle things. They need that.”

It wasn’t easy, though, not against an SMCC team that had handled them easily early in the season.

“There’s always a concern. I thought we struggled serving … I thought we struggled in a lot of facets of the game, and that’s what I love about these kids. They can handle struggling, and still get the job done. We played worse on Tuesday,” said Bronson coach Jen LaClair. “Let’s face it, St. Mary is an awesome team. We came in and knew it was going to be a dogfight, and it was a dogfight. Karen and I are friends, and texting back and forth yesterday. We knew it was going to be a dogfight. But I think we looked forward to the challenge.”

It was the challenge of playing in those pressure-packed sets at the end that lifted up the Vikings … and may have squashed the Kestrels (45-4).

“Did the nerves probably get us in the fifth set? Yes. We did some very unorthodox things that we hadn’t done,” SMCC coach Karen O’Brien said. “I told them in the locker room, you never plan today to have a speech that you lost. I didn’t plan anything. I had full confidence that we were going to win. I think it’s been a great year. I think if you look at the makeup of our team, with four sophomores, four juniors and four seniors, I think we had a tremendous year, and I think this experience today will go a long way for our program. We haven’t been here since 2015, and it was our seniors’ first experience. I just think that experience … it’s a different atmosphere. You can say it’s just another match, but it’s to play in a state final. It means more. So I think this match will definitely go a long way.”

The players could feel it, too.

“I definitely think we became tentative in the fifth set. Throughout the rest of the game, we were eager, and we had a lot of excitement, and that definitely died down in the fifth set,” senior Maddie Haut said. “It’s a lot different, the lights, and the people, it’s really loud. You have to use everything you have to ignore what everybody else is saying. Definitely being here, especially since we have a pretty young team, it’s a lot of pressure, and they might not be used to that kind of pressure.”

All-stater, Haut had 14 kills, and her sister Mikayla had 18. As a team, though, the Kestrels had negative hitting percentages for the final two sets.

“I think the fourth set, fifth set, we just didn’t play aggressive, like we had the first three. Tentative. You hit negative in both sets, it’s gonna hurt us. The way to work through it is to stay aggressive. And we just didn’t stay aggressive,” O’Brien said. “I think on average, we were hitting over .300 as a team, and then we hit .043 (today). And that’s a big difference.”

Having been there before, the Vikings found ways to lift each other up.

For Ashton Wronikowski, it was dancing to the music.

“I think the first and second game, I went in there, and I was really tight, and I know that I, myself, was really, really nervous. And I said, ‘You know what? What do I do when I get loose? I dance. And I look stupid.’ I just channeled that, tried to get back into my mindset of ‘It’s just another game,’ and I’m here with these girls, and they’re going to pick me up if I’m not playing well,” the senior said. “I think we went into that fifth game excited, and that’s what sets us apart from a lot of other teams.”

Senior Maddy Thompson helped calm her teammates down, too.

“She came up to me between the third and fourth game and said, ‘Listen. You know you can play here. You deserve to be on this court. You need to loosen up and play your game. The less you think about it, the less stressed you’re going to be,’” Wronikowski said. “I know she did that not only to me, but to Paris (Outwater), to all of us who were feeling jittery. She came in big with her mental support, and her skills on the court.”

Keona Salesman finished with 23 kills, Jolie Smoker had 12, and Wronikowski had 10. Meagan Lasky had 47 assists and Salesman had 26 digs, while Kiera Lasky had 17.

“It’s obvious that we didn’t play the best that we can play — nowhere near that. But we’re a family. We come together. We have grit, we have heart. Hustle and heart set us apart. That’s just what it is, that’s what we’re taught to do. That’s how we do things. So we just came together while we were struggling, and that’s why we won,” Kiera Lasky said. “I felt like we came in the underdog, where we haven’t been the underdog all year. We came in, and we kind of knew, this is going to be the game. This is the game that’s been marked on our calendar all year. We’re coming, and it’s going to be a dogfight, and win, lose or draw, we’re going to play our hardest.”