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Murray sisters lead Ann Arbor Skyline past Novi to clinch first-ever regional title

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, November 15, 2019, 12:25 am

HOWELL — There’s a difference between knowing what to do, and being able to get it done.

Having faced Miss Volleyball candidates before — for instance, two days earlier in Tuesday’s regional semifinals — the Novi Wildcats knew what they were facing in Thursday’s Division 1 regional championship match against Ann Arbor Skyline.

The Wildcats knew they’d need to contend with Miss Volleyball candidate Kendall Murray and her freshman sister Harper but — unlike Tuesday’s sweep over Brighton and Celia Cullen — they couldn’t stop the Eagles, as Skyline won, 26-24, 25-17, 25-23, to clinch its first-ever regional crown.

“Difficult. We watched film on them, and they did exactly what we watched on film. That’s a tough pill to swallow. We would’ve liked them to beat us in different ways. We knew Kendall was going to go cross, we knew Harper was going to go line. We knew that they were going to utilize back-row attacks. I think that goes to show how great that they are, that we knew their game-plan, and they were still able to execute at a very, very high level. Overall, I think that’s tough to see that we knew what they were going to do, and we couldn’t stop it,” Novi coach Kacy Byron said, agreeing that it’s difficult to key on one or the other. “They both do different things. One is an extremely high-level cross-court hitter, and one is a line attacker. As soon as you pick up on one, they rotate back, and you’re facing the other.”

The Eagles move on to quarterfinals for the first time ever, heading back to their home town for Tuesday’s quarterfinal at Ann Arbor Huron, taking on Livonia Churchill. 

“I mean, it feels great. It feels great to get past this part. We were so close last year, and I think we just wanted it so bad. We wanted to get to this point and get past it, because last year, we just came up kind of short,” Skyline coach Chris Christian said, noting his team learned from last year’s regional finals loss to Northville.

“It was the first time we’d won a district, made it to the regional finals. It was great. The thing that, when I got to Skyline, the thing I kept telling the girls, ‘We can be great. We can be a great team, a team that makes a difference.’ … The parents bought in, believed in it, believed in me, and we just kind of kept working at it.”

Novi (31-8-6) led the first set 19-13 before the Eagles roared back, scoring 13 of the final 18 points to win the set. Skyline has yet to drop a set in the postseason.

“I think we’ve just been playing with a lot of fire. We just come out here and say ‘We want it.’ There’s no reservation when we go out on the court,” Christian said. 

“We have, all season, been coming from behind, just like that. We get down, but the thing our team does, we never give up. We kind of stayed focused, stayed with composure. I think that’s something that we’ve been working on a lot this season— when we get down, not to panic.”

That momentum carried over into the next set, as well, as Skyline jumped out to a 10-5 lead, and expanded it as far as seven points. The Wildcats wouldn’t truly grab momentum back in the match until they trailed by seven points again in the third set.

“Yes. One hundred percent. We led almost the entire first set, before they came back. I was kind of hoping that it would give us the motivation to see that we can not only hang with them, we can lead and beat them. However, that momentum spin really went into their favor, carried over for the majority of the third,” Byron said, proud of her team for fighting back in the third set.

“I think that speaks to the direct heart of the team that we have. We’ve been in situations like that before, and were able to come back before. … We return a lot of people for next year, and this is a great learning opportunity for our young team. I really think it shows the character of this team. A lot of other teams, they could’ve been in that situation, and maybe they fold, and lose 25-15, and to come all the way back, that says a lot.”

Skyline built a 22-15 lead on an ace by Kendall Murray, followed by a line shot by Harper Murray, but Novi would rip off five straight points on the service of Shannon Jennings to cut it to just two points, 22-20. Six serves later, Skyline was able to close out the match with a back-row kill by Kendall Murray. 

The loss ended the four-year career of Shannon Jennings, who finished with three aces, six kills, 21 assists and nine digs. She’s in the Novi record book for aces and assists.

“She’s definitely left her legacy,” Byron said. “I think if you look back on Shannon’s career, Shannon was the six-rotation right-side hitter when Novi won the championship. I think her career and legacy at Novi is cemented. She followed the great Erin O’Leary, and she picked up in those footsteps and took off from there as our setter. She’s had an unbelievable career at Novi.”

It also ends the second season for the Wildcats under Byron, who took over the program on the heels of winning three straight Class A titles.

“Honestly, it’s been really, really rewarding. I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous to step into those shoes. I mean, you look at what Jen and Ricky (Cottrill) accomplished as coaches, and you think ‘How can I ever replicate that?’ You realize that it’s not necessarily replicating that, but it’s keeping that high-expectation culture — that’s what the girls want, that’s what the team wants,” Byron said. “To step in, and to be as successful as we have been, having lost the seniors that they had — it’s been so rewarding, I can’t even put it into words. It’s been more rewarding to me than I ever thought.”

Sarah Vellucci led the Wildcats with 10 kills, while Gabby Cummings had six. Rachel Jennings had 21 digs and three aces.