CLASS D GIRLS VOLLEYBALL FINALS: St. Phillip wins 19th title with victory over Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes
BY DAN STICKRADT
BATTLE CREEK — It’s hard to imagine Battle Creek St. Phillip having to prove itself on the volleyball court. After all, the Tigers are the most heralded Class D program the state has to offer.
Heading into Saturday’s Class D state finals at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena, the Tigers — the top-ranked team in the coaches poll for most of the season — had won seven straight state titles, been to the Final Four 19 times in 20 years, and posted a 18-8 record in state title games dating back to 1977.
Yet, St. Phillip had to replace all six starters from last year’s state championship team and only returned two players that saw significant time in the rotation.
The Tigers made it eight in a row Saturday, which ties Class B state powerhouse Marysville’s state record, and won title No. 19 with a 3-0 sweep of second-ranked Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes. St. Phillip posted scores of 25-12, 25-22 and 25-19 to sink the Lakers in only 57 minutes.
“We did have a lot to prove,” said St. Phillip coach Vicky Groat, whose team finished 64-7-2. “Losing all of those seniors last year, including six starters, and having to come back and prove that we belong. It’s amazing what these girls accomplished this season. We had a lot of news players. To come back and win again is quite an accomplishment.”
St. Phillip, behind the play of senior jumping-jack Sierra Hubbard-Neil, had little problems cruising past Our Lady of the Lakes in Game 1. Hubbard-Neil slammed six kills in Game 1 alone and finished the match with 19 kills on 28-for-31 attacking.
“We knew that another team (Marysville) had the record and we had the opportunity to tie it and we did,” smiled Hubbard-Neil.
Emily Schaub added 26 assists and Emily Fraybler four kills for the Tigers, who took advantage of Our Lady of the Lakes’ 16 attacking errors and 11 service errors.
Playing in the state finals for the first time against one of Michigan’s premier programs, WOLL coach Stephanie Swearingen knew her team had to play perfect. Instead, early-match jitters placed the Lakers into an early hole and her team could never claw back.
“I think that did hurt us a lot, the errors, especially in the first game,” said Swearingen. “We played a lot better in the second and third games. We started blocking better. But they are a tremendous team. Every time we were close, they would go on a run.”
Courtney Wightman kept the Lakers in the final two games and finished with 11 kills and three blocks. Allsion Samulon added seven kills and Kali Bagley supplied 22 assists for WOLL, which reached the Final Four for the first time since 2001.
Groat never felt comfortable with the Lakers’ reputation to come back in close games this season.
“They had a tremendous team and they have weapons, not just one, (players) that can all put the ball down,” noted Groat. “We were never comfortable, even after Game 1, that the match was in our favor. We knew we had to work hard to win. This wasn’t easy.”
Lakes wasn’t rattled in Game 2, building leads of 4-1, 5-3, 10-9 and 12-11 before St. Phillip picked up the pace. The Tigers responded with a 7-0 run for an 18-12 advantage. Schaub had three aces in the run that put St. Phillip up for good in Game 2.
Our Lady of the Lakes took an early 2-1 lead in Game 3 and fought even at 8-8 in the set. A 9-2 St. Phillip run was the backbreaker, as the Tigers built a 17-11 lead and Lakes could never rally back any closer than 23-19.
“The seniors did an amazing job getting us to this point from where we were five years ago,” said Swearingen. “Now we hope to work hard and try to get back soon.”