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No. 2 Notre Dame Prep dances past Corunna in semis, setting up title showdown with No. 1 Grand Rapids Christian

By: Matthew B. Mowery, November 15, 2018, 9:45 pm

BATTLE CREEK — Longtime Pontiac Notre Dame Prep volleyball coach Betty Wroubel had the leisure time after Thursday night’s Division 2 semifinal match to critique her seniors’ dance moves.

The fact that the reigning Class B champion Fighting Irish are still dancing means that they’ll get to defend their title on Saturday.

It also means they’re loose.

And part of the reason they’re so loose — not really feeling the pressure of being the favorite — is that they actually go into Saturday’s match as the underdog to top-ranked Grand Rapids Christian.

No. 2 Notre Dame Prep (64-5) beat Corunna, 25-9, 25-14, 25-17, to earn a berth in Saturday’s Division 1 championship match at 4 p.m., where they’ll face a Grand Rapids Christian squad that’s been ranked ahead of them all season.

“I think we’ve been an underdog all year. We’ve just done well,” Wroubel said. “They’re an outstanding team. The rankings are fun to look at, drive interest in volleyball, makes it kind of exciting, but we have to take care of things on our side of the net, do the best we can. We try not to worry too much about that side, but they’re a really, really strong team. Making the divisions this year, instead of the classes made a big difference. They’ve been a great team for a while now, but this side of the state, in Division 1/Class A, has been really strong, and they’ve gotten knocked out. I’m thinking this is what they feel is their big shot. … They’ve been one of the smallest (Class) As for a while.”

Both teams breezed through sweeps in their semifinal matches, with the Irish sweeping a Corunna squad (50-7-5) that was making its first appearance on the big stage.

That was a contributing factor for the Cavaliers.

“A little bit, but we’ve been talking about the atmosphere since Tuesday. We tried really hard, but how do you simulate this in your own gym?” said Cavaliers coach Kari Carnell. “Getting here has been really exciting. I think we’ve played some of our best volleyball of my (eight-year) career here at Corunna. Getting here has been kind of a goal and dream of ours, so that was kind of cool.”

And for all that the Notre Dame Prep program has been a regular in Battle Creek over the years, this team didn’t have a ton of experience.

“I’d like to talk about that, but these are my only three veterans right now,” Wroubel said, pointing to the three seniors with her in the post-match press conference, Maddy Chinn, Natalie Risi and Maria Famularo. “I was nervous that our other kids are inexperienced, and how they would handle this stage. I thought they did a tremendous job, for the first time. The seniors did a great job of helping them, and talking them through it — what to expect, and how to handle it. Take those deep breaths. Maria, the jokester over here, lightening it up a little bit for them, so they could be successful.”

It was Famularo’s dancing to a Michael Jackson tune that drew the critique from her coach.

“That would be me. … I was trying to lift the spirits up. Whoops. Gotta keep the kids smiling,” Famularo said. “I think I just like to keep the younger kids loose. We do have five freshmen on the team. So I like to keep them positive and smiling. I feel like that’s kind of one of my roles of being a senior, keeping the kids positive, making sure they’re having fun, doing what they need to be doing, staying confident with themselves.”

The Irish also have three sophomores and two juniors on the squad, none of which have the experience that they do. That’s part of the reason Wroubel considered her team an ‘underdog’ much of the season, even though they ripped off 60 wins again.

“We just come into every game having a lot of respect for each team, so … We don’t really come in confident. We come in with a little swagger and, I would say, self-confidence, but we never come in cocky, thinking that we’re going to beat a team always, because we know it can go either way,” Risi said, admitting it wasn’t always easy with such a young team. “In the beginning, it was kind of a struggle, getting them all up to speed, all confident. We just really went back to the basics. Now they’ve really caught up, and it’s been a lot of fun to play with them. They’re always open to learning, too. They’ve been very receptive to what we’ve been telling them, too. That’s been a huge difference, and a big thing that’s helped all year.”

It helps, too, having a pair of Miss Volleyball candidates on the roster in Chinn and Risi.

Chinn, who had 17 kills on .419 hitting to go with 13 digs, came home with the hardware on Tuesday. Risk added four kills and 10 digs, while Ally Borellis had 11 digs and 13 assists, and Famuaro had nine digs and 22 assists.

“It’s a lot of work. The award means a lot, so it’s important to keep that honor of it, while you play your game,” she said. “So I think just staying disciplined, relying on the hard work you put in, in practice, and just trusting it, that it will come out in a game is pretty big.”

The Irish hit .273 in the first set, holding the Cavaliers to negative hitting percentages in each of the first two sets. They also recorded five aces and just two service errors, while the Cavaliers had seven errors.

“I felt that we served well, we served seams. We didn’t serve exceptionally hard, but we served seams, and took them a little bit out of system,” Wrobel said. “They missed some early serves, and that gave us the momentum back.”

The Cavaliers bow out to the Irish for the second straight year, after losing to them in quarterfinals. But there is a hope that they’ll be back sooner rather than later, too, losing just two seniors, and returning junior middle hitter Elizabeth Norris, who had 14 kills on the night, giving her a season total of 879 on the season, the 13th-highest single-season total in state history. Tuesday, she passed the school record of her older sister, Meredith, who won Miss Volleyball in 2016, before signing with Michigan State.

“It’s exciting. We lose our setter (Alexa Mort, 22 assists), we lose our other senior (Madison Birchmeier) who had been a libero previously, but we moved to outside to get some ball-control,” Carnell said. “We lose those two, so we’ve got a big hole to fill in our setting position, but we’ve got some options.”

Hannah Hollister had 17 digs in the loss, while Ellie Toney had six kills and six digs.