North Branch defeats Lakewood for Class B title
Battle Creek – A year ago North Branch succumbed to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep in a classic, five-game thriller in the Class B state quarterfinals.
Notre Dame Prep went on to win the state championship, while North Branch began adding fuel to the fire for the 2014 season — a season that ended triumphantly.
After knocking off top-ranked and defending state champion Notre Dame Prep in Thursday’s state semifinals, the No. 2-ranked Bronchos swept No. 5 Lake Odessa Lakewood, 3-0, on Saturday in the Class B final at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena.
North Branch captured its first state title since 2009 with the win and made good on its sixth trip to the Final Four in nine seasons. The Bronchos’ last trip came two years ago, when they lost in the state title game to Lakewood.
“Last year we had Notre Dame at match point six times but couldn’t put it way,” North Branch coach James Fish, who completed his 15th season by leading his team to a 61-7-4 record. “I thought that was the state title game last year, to be quite honest. Two years ago we lost to Lakewood in the finals and I knew they were really good. They were taller than us and had a lot of (seniors). This year we were the veteran team and we came out on top.”
All-State Dream Team candidate Laura Wilson hammered home kills on all four of the Bronchos’ final points for North Branch. North Branch was 1-3 in state title games heading into the match, having lost in 2007 (Class A, winter season), 2010 (Class B) and 2012 (Class B) to go along with the ’09 title.
“Last year we lost in the quarters and we felt we should have won that game,” said Wilson, a Division I college recruit. “This year we saw them again in (the semifinals) and I know they wanted to win it, but so did we. We weren’t going to let them take it away from us again. We came here today and weren’t going to let Lakewood beat us again, either.”
The Bronchos didn’t let down until the job had been finished. North Branch defeated five schools that had been ranked at times this season over their seven tournament games.
Lakewood made a fine run to the finals, but the Vikings’ youthful squad ran out of steam.
“It was a role reversal from two years ago,” offered Lakewood coach Kellie Rowland, whose program made its third appearance in the state finals and sixth in the Final Four. “We were a veteran team two years ago and North Branch was kind of young. This year we were young. At times we ran two sophomores and two freshman out on the floor at the same time.
“So if you would have asked me at the beginning (of the season) if we’d be here in Battle Creek, I would have said no. But we came on strong at the end and made a great run just to get here.”
Lakewood only had 29 kills as a team, led by seven each from Gracie Shellenbarger and Vanessa Reynhout. Gabie Shellenbarger had 26 assists and Reynhout chipped in with 10 digs.
Lakewood had an 8-3 lead in Game 1 but could not hold off Wilson and the Bronchos’ array of hitters.
North Branch only trailed twice in Game 2, at 2-1 and 3-2, before pulling ahead as 10 points at 24-14 and ending the set with a Wilson block-kill.
Lakewood again built a four-point lead at 9-5 in the third set but could not put the Bronchos away.
“I think we started land of kind of slow, especially in the first game,” said Fish. “Then we scored four in a row to go up (7-3) in the second game and looked comfortable. The third game was a lot tougher .We tied it up a couple of times and finally put them away.
“It was a tough road this year,” added Fish. “We beat a lot of ranked teams in order to win it. We beat Mt. Morris in the district finals, we beat Frankenmuth in the regionals and they were ranked for a while. We beat Cadillac in the quarters and I know they had a really good year, then we beat (two top-five) teams in Battle Creek.”
Now, Fish has to deliver a promise made back in the summer.
“I will have to get a tattoo, probable y on my back. A promise is a promise,” smiled Fish. “It will be very small, though. They didn’t tell me it had to be big.”