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No. 1 Mercy gets Jess Mruzik back and clicking, sweeping previously unbeaten, No. 4 Marian

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, September 25, 2019, 11:52 am

BIRMINGHAM — That audible click you heard in the third set of Tuesday evening’s Catholic League volleyball match was something that probably sends shivers down the spines of opposing blockers and defenders.

It was a pair of longtime Farmington Hills Mercy teammates — senior outside hitter Jess Mruzik and junior setter Julia Bishop — locking in their synchronization on offense, finally beginning to click after the hitter’s recent absence from the team.

Getting feed after feed from Bishop, Mruzik ran off a flurry of five quick points in that third set, as the No. 1-ranked Marlins opened up a 20-12 lead, then held on to win the set 25-20, sweeping previously unbeaten and No. 4-ranked Birmingham Marian, 25-21, 25-16, 25-20.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mercy-Marian match will be the main event on this week’s STATE CHAMPS! High School Sports Show at 9 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, on Fox Sports Detroit. Tune in for a full highlights package.]

That bodes well for the Marlins (27-1), who had only been bested once — in the finals of their own tournament last week — in Mruzik’s absence, and are just starting to hit their groove.

“Yeah, exactly. Now that she’s back, now that we know our rotation — with a few minor switches here and there — now we know what our next goal is, and being able to take that goal one step at a time, until we reach that state finals,” Bishop said, admitting the Marlins expect this ride to be a blast. “So fun. I’m excited for this season.”

Like last year, when Mruzik earned MVP honors helping USA Volleyball to a gold medal at the NORCECA under-18 Continental Championship at the beginning of September, delaying her start to her high season, the defending Gatorade Player of the Year got a late start with the Marlins again this fall. 

She’s just coming back from making history in Egypt this time, having earned MVP honors in leading the U.S. Girls Youth National Team to gold — the first in an age-group world championship for either gender in U.S. volleyball history — at the FIVB Girls U18 World Championship back on Sept. 14.

“It was an unbelievable experience, something that I can never probably get back again in my life, and something I’ll always remember. But I wouldn’t be there without these high school girls being there for me in the high school season,” Mruzik said Tuesday night, after she collected a team-high 15 kills. “It was an awesome experience, but I’m happy to be back.”

And the Marlins are certainly happy to have her, and they’ll worry about knocking off the rust as they go.

“Obviously her coming back from (Team) USA — obviously that’s great for her; it’s amazing — to be able to adapt to her coming back, that’s challenging, and it’s going to happen more and more when we start playing. I think the more we start playing, the better we’re going to be with her,” Bishop said, admitting there were times in Mruzik’s absence when she forgot the outside hitter was gone. 

“Oh, yeah. Sometimes, you get that feeling, and you look back, and she’s not there, and it’s like ‘Oh, wait … I forgot …’”

It’s a situation that the Marlins were in last year, too, when Mruzik came back to the team from her time in Honduras, and was a bit nicked up. This time, it’s more an issue of readjustment than getting healthy.

“We knew that she was going, and we were so happy for her, but I think it allowed other people to play. … Obviously, having Jess back, it strengthens a big part of our game,” Mercy coach Loretta Vogel said. “When she returned, we didn’t have her practice, so she didn’t do anything, even though she was back here in Michigan. It took so long for her to get accustomed to the time change. She just started practicing a little bit. Is this the first time we’ve had her? I think so. Maybe we had her a little bit last week, but not much, because you could tell she was sluggish. So it’ll take a little of time for her and Julia to adjust a little bit. … I think it’s easier (this time) because everyone’s older. Last year, we had that large group of sophomores, and she was a junior. Now, it’s we have our seniors, and that group of juniors — and they’ve been through that. They’ve been with a high level of play.

“You can tell they’re older and mature young ladies. That’s what I’m witnessing.”

The big hitter’s absence also gave other players a chance to step up, and develop into options for Bishop to count on in big moments. One of those that stepped up the furthest was junior middle blocker Charli Atiemo. 

“Playing five seasons with her recently — oooh, it’s amazing. You see the connection with her, for sure,” Bishop said. “I can really see who steps up in what moments. It’s when we start playing tougher teams, people start realizing who we set, and we have to still be able to have backup options, especially in games like this. 

“So to be able to bring her (Mruzik) back into the offense, but not run her too much, to the point where people see her non-stop … I think in this match they started seeing Jess score more and more, so to see who stepped up in the moment where she was gone, it was huge.”

A third-team all-stater last year, Atiemo had 11 kills, many of them on quick sets at the net, or on the slide, as Bishop (39 assists) used that connection with Atiemo and Kaylin Collins (8 kills, 16 digs) to her advantage. 

“I just thought Jules was fabulous distributing the ball,” Vogel said, noting Atiemo’s improvement. “Just elevating her game. She looks great. I always want to go back and compliment Julia, but they always know what they’re going to do.”

The Mustangs (19-1) may be better equipped to stop some of those quick-hitting plays in the next meeting between the two teams, if and when they get back their own missing big gun, 6-foot-3 sophomore middle blocker Sarah Sylvester. 

“We’re going to see them three more times, possibly four, and I think we got some good information here, but we didn’t play anywhere near our best game, which is exciting, considering (the close scores). It’s promising, and we’re still out Sara Sylvester. I believe she’ll slow down more balls at the net,” Marian coach Mayssa Cook said. “It’s not just playing — she’s not bringing her level of play to practice, to push other players, as well. Just having her at practice will give us competition to use against some of the top teams in the state.”

Ava Brizard led the Mustangs with nine kills and 11 digs, while Christine Audette had seven kills, and Ava Sarafa had 25 assists. 

It was a litmus test of sorts for the Mustangs (19-1), who hadn’t been beaten yet this season coming in.

“Oh, for sure, and the first time you play any team — especially when it’s a team you’re going to see multiple times — we don’t really strategize too much. It’s one of those things ‘Go out, play hard, have fun.’ And as the match went on, we started seeing, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to start working on in practice. Let’s try running that again. Does it really work?’” Cook said. “Things like that.”