D4 VOLLEYBALL FINALS: Smith, Heitkamp lead Mendon to second straight D4 title, No. 5 overall
BATTLE CREEK — Taylor Heitkamp watched from afar last year when Mendon captured its fourth girls volleyball state championship.
Feeling left out, she was every bit a part of that championship experience this time around.
After graduating six players from a title-clinching squad, the 5-foot-8 Heitkamp joined the foray and an array of hitters this season, including junior Anna Smith. The top-ranked Hornets defended their Division 4 state championship by defeating No. 5 Leland, 25-17, 25-19, 27-29, 25-14, at Kellogg Arena.
Last year Mendon (40-9-6) swept Leland for the fourth title. This year it took a little more effort and balance for title No. 5.
“I watched (from the stands) last year. There were other reasons why I didn’t play, but I really wanted to be a part of it this year,” said Heitkamp.
“I came out with the intentions of having my best game and I feel I did that,” she added. “This was my last game, so I left it out there (on the court). This was special.”
There was no way Mendon was going to let its lead slip away. Not even after a disastrous Set 3 where Leland led most of the way.
“Last year Anna (Smith) kind of dominated. This year I felt we were a little more balanced,” said Mendon coach Heather Bowers. “We knew we had to be (more balanced). I thought we were the (whole tournament) and it showed. This was a team effort.”
It was the second title for Bowers, who walked into a gold mine of talented layers when she took over in 2018. She is now 89-15-9 in her two seasons with the Hornets.
“This is not how it always goes,” laughed Bowers. “We beat them last year, so we knew they would have the revenge factor and was working hard to beat us. I thought they did a good job in Game 3. We came out back out in the fourth game and (rediscovered our rhythm). We took it to them (in the fourth set).”
In Set 3, Leland led 2-0, 10-6 and eventually 24-19 before the having to claw out the two-point decision in the set, 29-27.
Mendon dominated the fourth set, leading 5-2 early. After a 5-5 tie, the Hornets went on a 20-9 run to clinch the match and repeat as a state champ.
Mendon is now 5-0 all-time in state title games, also winning in 2018, 2001, 1999 and 1998.
In the regular season, the Hornets finished second into Division 3 top-ranked Schoolcraft in the Southwestern 10 Conference. In the state tournament, Mendon defeated three top-five schools and four teams ranked in the top 15.
“This was a great run. Even though we lost six (players to graduation), we were able to get back and win it,” said Bowers.
Anna Smith, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter and one of the state’s top juniors, slammed a match-high 22 kills on 44 attempts and added 13 digs and four aces for the Hornets. Heitkamp added 12 kills, Gracie Russell recorded 41 assists Juliana Hagenbuch 19 digs and Isabella Smith 12 digs for Mendon. Andrea Hoffman, the only other returning starter besides the Division I recruit Smith, contributed six kills and six blocks.
Mendon trailed 4-1 early in Game 1, but warned up behind the play of Smith and Heitkamp. The Hornets led start-to-finish in the second set to gain control.
Mendon found its rhythm again in Game 4 to bring down the Comets (44-15-3) back to earth.
“The hard work these girls have put in, I just can’t say how proud I am of them because it was a completely different group, a completely different dynamic, but with the same work ethic and the same drive and will to win,” said Bowers.
Leland will lose just one player off its roster. The near future should be prosperous for a program that is no stranger to the volleyball finals, competing on the final day for the 13th time in 41 years. The Comets slipped to 5-8 in the state finals matches, including 1-3 in the past six years.
“We lose our Gillian (Grobbel), but we’ll have everyone else back. The future of Leland volleyball looks bright,” said veteran Leland coach Laurie Glass.
“I’m super proud of the journey and the journey is what we’ll remember most. It’s a challenge to be able to sit there and experience a loss again and say the right things,” added Glass. “We played them tough and we battled back in that third game. They had a great game plan and I think the executed it at times and I think we executed ours at times.”
Leland did not have a counterpart to stop the aforementioned Smith, who will be one of the frontrunners for Miss Volleyball in 2020.
“(Anna Smith) can almost score at will,” Glass said. “She does that against every team. I have not seen anybody that was able to stop her. She has all the shots — all the tips, sees all the lines, reads all the sets. And we had that great serve in Game 3 where she came out of nowhere and got the ball. She’s a great player and unfortunately for us that she is a junior and she’ll be returning next year.”
Leland is expected to return 11 of 12 players next season.
“We hope to be able to make it back,” said junior Mia Osorio.
The Comets only played seven players on the day, led by 15 kills and 16 digs from Tatum Kareck. Jana Moble added 37 assists and eight digs, Grobbel picked up 13 kills, Olivia Lowe had 11 kills and nine digs, while both Jennifer Estrada and Osorio recorded 10 digs apiece for Leland.