No. 6 Unionville-Sebewaing has to rally to survive against surprising Brown City, advance to D3 semifinals
BURTON — Considering they’d handled Tuesday’s quarterfinal opponent pretty handily at the start of the season, it was a bit of a shock to the system of the No. 6-ranked Unionville-Sebewaing Area Patriots when they fell in a 1-0 hole to start Tuesday’s Division 3 quarterfinal match.
It was even more shocking when Brown City responded to a lopsided Set 2 loss by winning Set 3 handily, putting the Patriots on the brink of elimination.
Challenged by their coach, Theresa Rose, the Patriots rallied to claim the fourth and fifth sets, winning 22-25, 25-15, 17-25, 25-21, 15-8 to beat the Green Devils, and advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2014.
The Patriots (43-4-4) will take on No. 8 Traverse City St. Francis in the semifinals at noon on Thursday at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena.
“Yay. Exciting. This group has never been there, any of these players, so I’m excited for them, for our program,” said 10th-year Patriots coach Theresa Rose, admitting she was shocked by the start. “It was not (expected). They were a totally different program when we played them at the beginning of the year. Jenna (Welke) is a great coach, and she’s whipped them into shape. I think we maybe played a little bit on our heels. I’m just happy we’re going.”
That certainly wasn’t a given for the Patriots (43-4-4), given how hard the Green Devils (27-13-5) pushed them.
“They’re not used to losing, as you know, and I really thought it wasn’t going to be good for us. But they kept pushing, digging deep, and came away with the win, and I’m happy for them,” said Rose, whose team went to a fifth set for the first time all season. “I don’t even know what was going through my head. I was like ‘Oh, my God …’ We just weren’t used to playing from behind. And they really dug deep, and just pushed forward.”
Second-team all-stater Rylee Zimmer finished with 30 kills, 21 digs and three solo blocks, but she added one stat that won’t show up in the box score: claiming the west side of the gymnasium floor, where each set winner had played, for the decisive fifth set.
“I told Rylee when she went to that captains meeting right before the fifth, we want this side. ‘I don’t care if we win the serve, we want this side. Pick sides,’” Rose said.
Zimmer had a block and a kill to help USA jump out to a 4-0 lead in the fifth set, then they stretched it to 7-1, then to 9-1, then 12-2, before the Green Devils started to make a comebakc, running off six of the next seven points to cut it to 13-8.
“I just said, ‘If you want it, you gotta go for it. You can’t be afraid. You gotta attack.’ We have hitters, and strong hitters, and I felt like we were doing a lot of tipping tonight. And that’s just not our team. I basically said, ‘If you want it, you better fight for it.’ They did,” Rose said. “We just wanted it. We’ve kind of been talking about getting to Battle Creek, and I told them, ‘Playing at Battle Creek’s a whole new level.’ It’s such a great experience. They wanted it, so they fought for it, and they took it.”
Allyson Kemp (nine kills) had a cross-court shot to get the serve back for USA, then Grace Williamson (13 kills, 13 digs) ended the match with a slam of a free ball at the net cord.
While Brown City did a good job of running a block at Zimmer — at least until the Patriots went to a quicker offense, with setter Nicole Schember (56 assists, 12 digs) throwing up quick sets and slides for Zimmer — the balance of the Patriots up front meant that Brown City couldn’t always commit two blockers to her.
“They have a lot of options up front, too. It’s not like we could put our sole attention on Rylee. They had other girls too that we needed to focus on, so we needed to stay a little bit neutral. Our focus was that we just needed to be stout on defense,” Welke said. “Maybe we couldn’t have a solid double block at all times, but we just needed to be stout and go for that ball.”
The Green Devils were also able to feed the ball to their own big hitter, third-team all-stater Kendal Muxlow.
“Kendal’s a great player. … She was putting balls away. Everything went to her, which is kind of predictable. Even when she was in the back row, they went to her. But that’s the same with us, with Rylee. Sometimes, we have to take it to Rylee to get us out of jams, too. Her and Kendal are very elite players,” Rose said. “Rylee’s been on my team for four years. And she’s just an amazing player, and I’m excited she’s getting the opportunity to play on that next stage.”
While the Patriots move on, the Green Devils complete a season that was very different at the finish than at the start.
“We had some ups and downs this season, but looking at the whole picture I’m very proud of how our team has progressed. We started off a little shaky, and I think they capitalized, and executed at the end of the season. USA is a phenomenal team, and I hope they continue to have success, because they played like it today, and we just couldn’t execute when we needed,” Welke said. “That’s been our biggest thing all year long is when we’re behind like that, we need to execute. We play what we call the card game in practice, and it’s when we’re coming from behind. It’s pressure, and we need to stay under control and calm. I wasn’t concerned, but we got down too far in those couple of games, and just couldn’t dig ourselves back out.”