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Lake Orion continues improbable postseason run, returning to Battle Creek to defend D1 title

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, November 19, 2019, 9:56 pm

LAPEER — ‘Improbable’ is likely not a strong enough word.

While the Dragons were the defending champions of Division 1 volleyball, considering what they’d lost from the team that won the program’s first-ever title last fall, a return to Battle Creek was — well, let’s just say not a certainty.

If you’d have told them four months they’d be headed back to Cereal City this week, they might’ve laughed at you.

Yet, with a 25-20, 25-17, 25-8 win over an equally improbable quarterfinalist in Mt. Pleasant, the Dragons are doing what few thought they could — including themselves.

“I wouldn’t have believed you. Maybe in the summertime, when we played really good in scrimmages and stuff, but once the season started, I saw the inexperience,” Lake Orion coach Tony Scvarda said. “Even a month ago, if you’d have told me that, I’d have said there’s no way. But they figured out a way to get a fire lit under them, and they’re going for it now.”

The Dragons themselves were just as dubious.

“I would’ve thought we probably wouldn’t have, just because of how inconsistent we can be, and having to play Clarkston straight off the bat. No one would’ve expected us to win that game, let alone Stoney Creek in the next round,” said junior middle blocker Kendall Robertson, the lone returning starter from the championship squad.

“It feels amazing. No one thought that we were going to be able to do it, so it just is like such a lift of happiness, because really, we’re proving everyone wrong.” 

Much of the doubt of the Dragons came from the inexperience factor.

Almost as much came from the fact that they had to get through a 42-win Clarkston squad, ranked No. 6, on the opening night of the playoffs, then squeak out a five-set win over honorable mention Oxford in the district title match, followed by a five-set win over No. 9 Stoney Creek in the regional semis.

“I think we’ve had maybe one of the toughest roads in the state of Michigan to get to this point,” Robertson said. “It’s amazing. It’s very hard to explain this feeling, but I feel so ecstatic. I’m so happy for everybody on this team to be enjoying this.” 

Scvarda agreed. 

“We can’t ask for much more. Not too many teams have had to have a road where they’ve had to beat two ranked teams and an honorable mention team, all in the first two weeks (of the postseason),” he said. “But it’s going to get a lot harder come Thursday. … We’ve gotta do more.”

Lake Orion (39-15-2) will take on No. 2 Lowell in Thursday’s first D1 semifinal, at 4:30 p.m. in Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena. Lowell beat No. 3 Mattawan, 17-25, 26-24, 25-17, 25-14, in its quarterfinal match at Jenison on Tuesday.

Improbable didn’t just apply to the Dragons in Tuesday’s match.

Mt. Pleasant’s run to the quarterfinals was … well, unprecedented.

Until last year, the Oilers (42-8-3) had only won one district title, back in 1979, and hadn’t won a regional title until last week. But they went 86-18-5 over the final two seasons under outgoing coach Alison Smith, who was in her last match on the sidelines for Mt. Pleasant. Married to Jeff Smith, the new associate head men’s basketball coach at Oakland University, she — and the Oilers — knew she’d be headed down to Oakland County to join him once the season concluded. 

“It’s emotional. What Mt. Pleasant volleyball has meant to me over the last six years, it’s been a huge part of my life, a huge part of my kids’ lives. My kids are in the gym every single day. These are all like big sisters to them. This is our extended family, so to say goodbye to those people is really difficult,” the coach said, through her incipient tears.

“Being in a coach’s family, we talk about all the time that if things are better than when you came, you’ve done your job. We talk to our kids about that, as well. I’m proud of what’s being built, and will continue to be built, even after I’m gone. We made some big steps the last two years. We’ve done some big things, but they can continue, and Mt. Pleasant can continue to do this. But this year’s support from the community, the schools, the athletic director — I’ve been really blessed to have been put in a wonderful position to do these things.”

The Oilers had every reason to believe they could extend Smith’s stay for at least three more days after staying neck-and-neck with the Dragons in the first set.

“I think as the match went on, we needed to serve them tougher, to keep them off the net. I think when they’re on the net, they’re really good. After the first set, I thought ‘Well, OK, we’re in this.’ But I think size, and athleticism and talent — all those things — took over,” Smith said. 

“I think it’s two-fold. I think their size and athleticism, that’s hard to match up. We’ve played some teams this year that have had maybe two or three rotations with that type of size, not six. I mean, I think the other part is probably experience. Like I said … growing pains. This is a new stage for us, this is uncharted territory. We tried to maneuver our way through it the best we can, but I definitely think that plays a factor. But they played excellent volleyball tonight.”

The Dragons did finally slide into a groove after they helped keep the first set close with a number of hitting and service errors. Some of the latter come naturally with the attempt to serve aggressively, but …

“Yeah, if we’re scoring some points — I don’t know about six, but … (The first set was) closer than it should’ve been.

That was my only worry coming in, was ‘Can we just serve tough as we have been throughout the postseason, and get them not passing as good as they usually do?’ … It (serving) has been huge, because you see some of our young kids — we do make errors, we do give away points — but we’ve relied, especially in the postseason, a ton on getting other teams out of system with our serve. That’s key for us,” Scvarda said, admitting his young team might’ve been as much prey to nerves as a Mt. Pleasant team on a wholly new stage.

“You saw them in the first set, too. That serving — we don’t generally miss that many serves in a set. And I just think a part of it is we have so many young kids that have never played varsity volleyball before, along with some that do have experience. But those players, there’s a big burden on them to kind of hold up everything. I think that can be a little bit of pressure, too.”

Scvarda has had to rely on his captains — senior libero Olivia Erwin, Robertson and sophomore setter Jaina Macaulay — to do a lot of leadership on a squad that has more sophomores (three) and freshmen (one) than seniors (three).

“A ton, especially on the court. My libero, Olivia Erwin, provides great leadership. She’s just a consistent force in the back row, where we’ve had some struggles this season. She’s been a steady force for us back there,” Scvarda said of his reliance on their leadership. “Our other two captains, Kendall, she’s a junior. She was the one starter that’s returning, so that’s a big thing for us. Jaina is a sophomore captain, one of my setters. She’s still learning yet, but she provides a lot of voice on the court. She’s a good communicator, so that’s why she’s a captain.”

After rattling off four of the final five points of the first set to go up 1-0, Lake Orion jumped out to leads of 7-2 and 14-4 in the second set, showing that advantage in athleticism and length. But Mt. Pleasant rallied after the second of Smtih’s two early timeouts, cutting it back to 15-10, and forcing a Scvarda timeout, worried about his own team’s inconsistencies and nerves. The Dragons would roll off five of the next six points, and never be seriously challenged in the match again, jumping out to leads of 6-1 and 12-4 in the final set.