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No. 8 Northville knocks off three-time champion Novi in district finals; ‘It’s just our turn, I think’

By: Matthew B. Mowery, November 1, 2018, 11:15 pm

NORTHVILLE — It’s someone else’s turn. Finally.

There will officially be a new volleyball champion in the MHSAA’s biggest division this year, after three-time defending Class A champion Novi was knocked out by rival Northville in the Division 1 district finals Thursday night, with the No. 8-ranked Mustangs sweeping the match, 25-13, 25-10, 25-19.

Like all things — good or bad — Novi’s four-year mastery of the district championship was eventually going come to an end.

“Kudos to Novi. … Great athletes, great strong players. I coached and know a lot of them,” said Northville coach Julie Fisette. “It’s just our turn, I think.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Full video highlights of this match will be posted to social media on Friday.]

The Mustangs (44-6-1) advance to the D1 regional at Ann Arbor Skyline on Tuesday, where they’ll take on Temperance Bedford at 6:30 p.m. Skyline and South Lyon will play in the other regional semifinal.

It’s been a long wait for the Mustangs, who hadn’t won a district title since back-to-back crowns in 2012 and 2013, the only two years that have postseason entries on the board of honor in the Northville gymnasium.

“I know it’s not necessarily (all), but for the Hannah Grants and the Ally Zayans and the kids that have been on this team, the seniors who have watched this every year, us losing to Novi and stuff, it’s really nice just to cap that. None of them are here tonight, but the past players — we’ve had remarkable seasons for the past two years, since I’ve been here, and the girls just deserve it as well. Just to see them get this finally, and to bring it home. My God, this is more hardware then we’ve had in five years. We’re pretty excited,” Fisette said. “What we always talk about is that every day is a new beginning, and it could be the last day of your life. So you’re playing for every day. … We knew at the beginning of the season, this team had it.”

Previous teams had had it, too, only to run into the same roadblock.

Every year, the Mustangs had gotten to the district finals, only to lose to the Wildcats, and then watch their rivals continue on throughout the playoffs, winning year after year.

“Right. It always was them. … This is amazing. The past four years, getting to this game every single year, and not winning, it’s an amazing feeling being able to continue our journey. It only gets easier from here,” said Grant, the senior libero, admitting it was frustrating watching their rivals have so much success. “It was really frustrating, because I knew all the players, and their coaches were my club coaches. Just looking over there, and knowing that they continued to win, it was just annoying, but they had a really good team, and deserved it. I’m glad it’s us this year.”

There could’ve been a mental block, too, if the Mustangs had played the name on the front of the Wildcats’ jerseys, and let that get in their heads.

They didn’t let it, jumping out to big leads — up 3-0 and 14-9 in the first set, up 11-5 to start the second set, and up 7-0 in the third set — in each set Thursday, and putting the younger Wildcats team on their heels.

“Yeah, I thought nerves definitely showed in the first two sets. The third set, we came out fighting, but unfortunately, we couldn’t string enough points together. But the serve receive in the first two sets kind of hurt us,” said first-year Novi coach Kacy Moran. “I think they came out swinging, and we came out with a lot of nerves. And when they’re playing at the high level they’re playing at, and we’re playing with nerves, that’s not the best combination. It showed why Northville is the great team they’ve been this season. I would never take that away from them. They’ve been No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 in the state, so they proved to everyone why they were ranked so high. … [T]hey are a great volleyball team, and they definitely have a chance to make a great run this season.”

The Wildcats fought back after that early deficit in the third set, rallying to tie it up at 8-8, then swapping points until Northville started to pull away at 18-17.

“I just think they came alive. Like my assistant coach said in the timeout, ‘Guys, it’s it for them. They gotta go out swinging, and playing hard, and I think that’s what they’re going to do.’

I think once that momentum went … they were digging us, doing all the right things, and it put us back on our heels a little bit. They’re a great team, and when you fire them up, you build a monster out there. Just settling our girls down, getting points, and telling them, ‘Hey, you got this. Settle down, get points, don’t look back,’” said Fisette, whose team got six aces from Grant, and aggressive serving across the board. “We’ve got a very aggressive serving team. And aces are huge. Aces and blocks. I mean, yeah, kills are big. But aces and blocks come along so infrequently, when you get them, it’s really a big momentum push.”

The Mustangs ran off eight of the final 10 points of the match to put it away, claiming another trophy to go with their KLAA championship, which had ended Novi’s seven-year run of league tournament titles.

Michael VanAcker and Eleanor Knight had nine kills each for the Mustangs, while Clare McNamara 10 kills, two blocks, and eight digs. Grant had 15 digs, Gabriella Fisette had 19 assists and Emma Stiles 15.

Gaby Cummings had eight kills to lead Novi, while  Shannon Jennings had 16 assists, Jaeda Porter had nine digs and Rachel Jennings 14 digs.

This victory might’ve been a bit sweeter for those in black and orange for several reasons, though.

After all, Novi was the program Fisette had built from almost scratch, taking over as a 23-year-old first-time coach, and taking them from the Kensington Valley Conference laughingstock to a regional and KLAA powerhouse over 19 seasons. Before she stepped away after the 2010 season, to watch her own kids play high school ball at South Lyon, Novi had won district titles in six of her final seven seasons, culminating in a trip to the semifinals in 2007. She made her return to high school coaching two seasons ago with Northville, where she teaches now, and Gabriella, her youngest daughter, is a senior setter for the Mustangs.

In the interim, the Wildcats had gone to new heights under Fisette’s eventual successor, Jennifer Cottrill, who led the Wildcats to four straight championship matches and three straight titles before stepping away herself after last season, to concentrate more on family and club duties.

Moran inherited a program that had lost the majority of its key players from last year’s championship squad, and intentionally played younger players early in the season, in the hopes that they’d peak at this point of the season.

And they did, to an extent, taking Northville to three sets in the KLAA tournament title game, hanging around the honorable mention list in Division 1 all season long, and winning 40 matches, finishing 40-9-2.

“Regardless of tonight, I could not be more proud of my team. They went out there, and proved everyone wrong. Everyone was saying we were losing nine seniors, we were losing coaches — they showed up every single day. We have 40 wins on the season, and under 10 losses. To me, that’s a phenomenal season, given the circumstances — not only for what we lost, but for any team. Any team would be proud of that,” Moran said, noting that writing off the Wildcats’ run as over might be premature. “We have so many young players, we showcased that this season, and we’re going to move forward with all those people.”