A month after looking like they might be a couple of steps away from winning a division title the Hillsdale Academy volleyball team is just two wins away from playing in the Class D state finals.
Showcasing different strengths in each set, and icing their nerves in front of a wildly supportive crowd at Hillsdale High School Thursday night, the Colts swept Plymouth Christian 25-18, 25-22, 25-21 to win the school’s third regional championship trophy.
First-year Academy head coach Katherine Jones has been around volleyball most of her life, but she said her teams’ current run where they have won a league championship one week, a district crown the next, and now a regional title, is beyond her most magical experiences as a player.
“It’s great. In high school I never really had a good team and we didn’t win a lot, and in college we did really well when I played there but I never really won like a championship in anything,” she said, in between receiving congratulatory hugs and encouraging words from people all over the gym. “So this is like some of my first times experiencing this championship, winning stuff. It just feels awesome and all the support we have is amazing.”
Thursday was another complete team effort, evident by the different ways the Colts took control of each set.
In the opening set the Colts serving was top-notch as players like Grace Leutheuser, Grae Barber and Kayla Berro frustrated the Eagles with precise velocity and placement on their serves.
And all evening it was girls like Barber and Berro, some of the often overlooked pieces that are the glue that holds everything together, that made big contributions.
Barber, a junior who had 10 kills on the night, said it’s easy to play up to your potential with the senior leadership that has been setting a fine example for the rest of them all season long.
“It’s been sweet. We have great senior leadership and we have so much dedication and desire to go out and win, and it was just awesome,” she said. “It’s like ‘Oh, they’re doing well, you better step up so they can keep doing well,’ and you just want to do well because they are.”
In the second set Jones said the Colts sudden serving woes “nearly killed” them, but they had enough resiliency to stay out of ruts and get right back up following mistakes.
Conversely, she said Plymouth Christian seemed to be hampered by its inability to overcome errors.
“We played really good together as a team. (Plymouth Christian) got frustrated a lot and if we did something like got the ball down on their side they would get frustrated and if we kept doing it they would keep getting frustrated and they could never really come back,” Jones said. “Any time we messed up, like when we were missing serves in the second game, we would come back and get the next point. Just as a team I think we played a lot better than they did as a team.”
Eagles head coach Kelly Blackney seemed to agree that as is usually the case in volleyball, the team who made the least mistakes won.
“I think they didn’t make as many unforced errors and we had a lot of unforced errors,” she said. “I thought we picked it up in third set and second set, but if we had cut down on our unforced errors I think it would have been a different game.”
She also said she knew Grace Leutheuser was going to be a tough player to stop, and the Colts senior star delivered another signature performance with 18 kills.
It was was another display of excellent net-play led by Leutheuser and Laura Wonders (nine kills) in the third set as the Colts finished out the match, to set up a monumental showdown with No. 1 Battle Creek St. Phil in the round of eight next week.
Barber said the team was plenty nervous prior to the match, as they will be against the Fighting Tigers, but they have learned to channel it into positive results.
“I definitely get nervous, I’m nervous like two days before,” she said. “That definitely helps me because I’m motivated and more prepared to play. I think everyone just comes out and is so ready and completely focused and ready to play.”
Heather Lantis had a game-high 31 assists and Callie Watkins had 22 serve receptions for the Academy.
Jones said she is ecstatic with how her girls are playing up to their potential right now, but they can’t forget all the progress they have made when they take on St. Phil, who earned a quarterfinals berth with a 3-0 win over eighth-ranked Watervliet Grace Christian.
The Fighting Tigers swept the Colts in Hillsdale earlier this season.
“We have to do a lot of mental preparation because sometimes we go into St. Phil not scared, but wanting to win and not necessarily knowing it or believing it,” she said. “Other than that we just have to work on what we have been doing in practices. We can’t change a lot of what we do but right now we have the potential to make them frustrated and make them make the mistakes.”
Barber said being scared is not an option.
“We played them in the beginning of the year so that’s always at the back of your head,” she said. “But you just have to put the fear out and just play with with all your heart and leave it all on the court. I think we can definitely do that, we showed that versus Lenawee, and we’re up there.”