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D3 VOLLEYBALL SEMIS: No. 2 SMCC accomplishes mission of returning to Kellogg Arena, knocking off first-time semifinalist Beaverton

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, November 22, 2019, 4:59 pm

BATTLE CREEK — The Kestrels of Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central certainly aren’t homing pigeons, but they did have coordinates on their warmup shirts to remind them where they were heading all season long.

Location: 42.3109º N, 85.1805º W

Those are the latitude and longitude for Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena, and the No. 2-ranked Kestrels are headed back there, after rolling past No. 7 Beaverton, 25-20, 25-17, 25-7 in Friday’s Division 3 semifinal match.

“Last year, after we got beat by Bronson … my assistant coach, Conor (Kuriwchak), gave me a bracelet, and it had the coordinates to Kellogg Arena,” SMCC coach Karen O’Brien said. “And that was our mission, to get back here.”

SMCC (49-2) will take on No. 1-ranked Schoolcraft (48-6-1) in the D3 championship match Saturday at 4 p.m. The Kestrels will be seeking their sixth state title as a program, and their first since 2014, when they beat a Schoolcraft program that had current players on the bench as managers, or in the stands as fans. [For the full pairings, CLICK HERE.]

Last year’s loss is more on the minds of the Kestrels, though, and the lessons from that will only help this time around. Winners of five state titles since 2003, SMCC was in the semifinals for the sixth time this decade and for a second straight year, after losing to eventual champion Bronson in last year’s semis. 

“Last year when we were here, we played a great first three sets, and then I think the pressure got to us. I think just being able to be here last year helped the whole program,” O’Brien said “The nerves weren’t as bad. I mean, you’re going to be nervous, no matter what, even us as a coach — and I’ve been coaching 36 years. But I think being in this atmosphere last year helped immensely.”

Junior outside hitter Mikayla Haut, who had a match-high 24 kills, agreed with her coach.

“I think last year, we didn’t know the atmosphere we were going to be in: The lights, the noise,” Haut said. “This year, after the majority of us being her and experiencing that, it was a big advantage for us. We kind of knew how loud it was going to be.”

It was not something their opponents from Beaverton were familiar with.

Beaverton was just the second Jack Pine Conference program to make it to Battle Creek; Roscommon lost to Schoolcraft in the 2014 Class C semis. 

“I think we were probably a little nervous. I think the coaches were a little nervous. This is all new, and we’re taking it in,” Beaverton coach Steve Evans said. 

“The community has been so excited about this. They’ve had escorts back into town, with police and fire trucks. They have really taken this to the next level, to show these girls how much it means to them. To see so many people here, cheering for us, even through the last points — through the last points, the other team cheers, the other team claps, but our fans are clapping. Our fans were excited, because they were saying ‘You have nothing to hang your heads about.’ I love that our community — there was nothing we could do to disappoint them today. They were going to be proud of us, no matter what.” 

The loss snapped a 37-match win streak for the Beavers (46-2-1), who had only lost one set in the postseason — and only eight all season — and hadn’t lost a match since August, when they fell to D2 quarterfinalist Freeland. 

“It’s crazy when you think about it. I feel like we never really think about it. We just kind of go out and do it,” said Becca Wirt. “I’m just proud that we got here. I think it’s amazing. I’m just proud of how much dedication all of our team has had. Just everything.”

It’s been an historic run for the Beavers, and Friday’s match was just the icing on an already finished cake. 

“A week from now, it’ll all sink in, what they accomplished. The whole season in a nutshell. They’ll be like, ‘Man, we did THAT? We accomplished that? We lost two matches through the whole season.’ And we didn’t play an easy schedule. We tried to go to harder tournaments, and play better teams. We lost two matches, and we avenged one of those losses. We have nothing to hang our heads about. I’ll remember that. I’ll remember the big run we had. I’ll remember all the trophies we brought back, from our first regional, our first quarterfinal,” Evans said. 

“I’ll remember the feeling this morning, when we were waiting to come here, at the hotel, and before we leave, there’s a (knock), and ‘Coach, we gotta go! We gotta get there.’ They just wanted to be here so bad, and experience this. They just wanted to get here, and get in this atmosphere. I’ll never forget their faces when they walked in the building, when they saw they had earned … THIS. So that’s going to mean a lot to me.”

Beaverton had a huge contingent of fans in attendance, as well.

“There are people out there that aren’t even from Beaverton that are wearing red out there,” Molly Gerow said. “Coleman, Clare …” 

“It’s a lifetime experience,” Mady Pahl said. 

The Beavers will return all but two seniors, making a return trip more than possible. 

Returning this year might not mean as much to the Kestrels if they don’t “Finish the Fight” — the other slogan they had on their warm-ups. SMCC has three runner-up finishes in its eight finals appearances. 

Even though this is the match most envisioned capping off the season in D3, O’Brien said the Kestrels hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“We really take it one game at a time, so tonight, we’ll start looking across the net at Schoolcraft,” the coach said. “I think with Simkins, she’s going to get her (kills). Other than that, they’re going to have to earn points on us. We’ll do our best to defend her. She’s a heck of a player. But I think we have, from start to finish, more hitters, and we can bring a little bit of variety with our offense. To me, it’s going to be about who’s going to play defense.”