Forgive the Hillsdale Academy Colts volleyball team if they show even the slightest sense of restlessness or trepidation tonight.
They are not just facing the No. 1 team in Class D, who swept them on their home floor earlier this year, they are taking on a volleyball factory in a sense.
The Battle Creek St. Philip Fighting Tigers rarely lose sets, let alone games, and the three-time defending state champions might just be the final road block on the Colts path to earning the title of best in the state.
But don’t tell Colts head coach Katherine Jones that you have any doubts about her team, because she doesn’t want to hear it and frankly she doesn’t believe them.
“I just want to get there and play the game. I have a lot of confidence in my girls and I know we can beat them and I know that other people don’t think we can,” she said about the 59-7-3 Fighting Tigers. “I saw a blog or something that said St. Phil will never get beat by a Class D school, not even a set or something, and I just want to go out there and prove them wrong because I know my girls can do it.”
St. Phil has not lost to a Class D school this season, but Jones said she has made sure her team is focusing on what they can do to beat them, not how good the opposition is.
“We’ve just really been focusing on our side of the court, what we have to do. We know St. Phil plays a good game and they’ll get their hits and they’ll have tough serves,” she said. “We’ve just been focusing on passing the ball well, how we can get around blocks and serving well…we want to make them make mistakes because we’re playing our game on our side.”
St. Phil beat the Colts 25-9, 25-12, 25-15 in October, as Megan Toth and Carly Dickerson proved they can be imposing forces at the net and libero and Miss Volleyball candidate Lena Oliver gobbled up most of what came her way.
Jones said what makes them such a good team in her opinion is how “they just seem to click”, thanks in part to their stellar coaching, and how they are smart, as well as powerful.
She doesn’t look at them as if they are an invincible superhero though.
“I mean they have some weaknesses, like some girls in the back row aren’t as strong as others. And if we get a block up on some of the girls they get frustrated, they have some freshmen outside who might get a little frustrated,” she said. “They do have weaknesses on that team, but we have to really focus on our game though because they don’t have as many weaknesses as other teams we’ve played, that’s for sure.”
Battle Creek St. Phil head coach Vicky Groat doesn’t think her team is immune from deficiencies in the least, but she expects great things from them. Following a three-set sweep of Hudson Freedom Baptist (25-19, 25-10, 25-13) in the regional semifinals last week she explained why just winning is not enough.
“I’m never happy. I didn’t like our intensity to start the game. You either leave it all on the court or you’re going to be crying,” Groat said to the Battle Creek Enquirer.
One thing that has vastly improved in the Colts favor since the last meeting is the Academy’s net play. Grace Leutheuser and Laura Wonders have made clutch blocks a habit lately, and players like Grae Barber, Heather Lantis and Emily Pewe have fed off their enthusiasm and upped their play noticeably as well.
Jones said she expects the Fighting Tigers to be a bit surprised by some of the progress her team has made.
“(The net play) is important, we’ve focused a lot on blocking too and trying to get our hands at least on a lot of the balls so our back row can get the balls off instead of it being really, really hard for them,” Jones said. “Our first line of defense at the net will hopefully be strong and if it is it’s a really great chance for us to win tomorrow.”
The main difference between then and now is a mental one though. The Colts thought they were a good team before, but Jones said her girls “stood and watched” a lot in the first showdown.
Now they are ready to put their season on the line, with a belief they can do what some deem “unthinkable.”
“The girls are definitely more motivated right now and you can see that in the way we’ve been practicing. Today in our practice a lot of our girls just went all out for every ball and it just looked like they really wanted it a lot more,” she said. “I think (before) we still weren’t consistent as we are now — if we lost a point we might lose five in a row and now I think we bounce back better and quicker now. I just think we’re ready for them now and we didn’t play at the net against them the first time.”