David threw a sharp, heavy stone at Goliath in the Kalamazoo Loy Norrix High School gym Tuesday, but Goliath found his wits and used his matchless power to ultimately overcome the underdog.
The Hillsdale Academy Colts volleyball team became the first Class D school to win a set against No. 1 Battle Creek St. Phil (60-7-3) all season long, but the Fighting Tigers used experience and a steady confidence to win the state quarterfinals battle in four sets, 25-11, 24-26, 25-12, 25-15.
The Colts were considerably sharper and much hungrier than they appeared in a three-set sweep at the hands of St. Phil in October, but they will have to settle with knowing they might just be the second best team in the state.
And that’s okay if you ask head coach Katherine Jones, who led the Colts to a 36-13-1 record in her first year in charge.
“(My team) had nothing to be ashamed of — we played hard. We took a set from them, that’s all I could ask for,” she said. “We’ve improved so much since (October), it’s unbelievable how much we’ve improved. We had some mental lapses or some times where we just gave them too many points in a row, but looking at the way we played tonight against the way we played last time, it’s just a 180-degree turnaround.”
It took a little while for that progress to show itself Tuesday though, as the Colts struggled to communicate effectively and a number of self-imposed errors were their downfall in the opening set.
Junior Heather Lantis appeared to be the only one on the floor who could consistently dig up the Tigers power shots, and senior Grace Leutheuser said it took some of her teammates the first game to adjust to the atmosphere and the intensity.
Nonetheless the final Leutheuser in a long line of successful ones at the Academy was more smiles than tears at the end of the night.
“We played our hearts out. And some of the younger players, you know, might have gotten a little shaken at times, but I feel like our team just stayed strong the entire time,” she said. “St. Phil came out ahead, but we did take a game from them. I feel like if we had kept things a little closer we could’ve done the same thing (as in game two), but we trailed a lot of the time and I think that shook us a little and the other games could’ve been ours. But that’s a maybe.”
The game that was theirs was a thing of beauty for Colts fans to watch.
Leutheuser played maybe one of the most complete sets of her entire career and the Academy came back from a 19-16 deficit with a furious rally that saw them make more plays down the stretch while St. Phil finally showed a few flaws.
A Ryian Hubbard service error and errant kill attempt by Carly Dickerson gave the Colts a 24-23 lead that they weren’t about to give back.
Three points later Colts junior Grae Barber made a great dig and Lantis set Barber for a perfectly placed kill that tied the match at one.
“After that first game I just said ‘Look, it’s 0-0 again, they’re not ahead at all, we can just play like it’s 0-0’….we’re still on equal playing surfaces,” Jones said. “The first set is always our downfall, and from there we got better. Evan against Lenawee (Christian) that first set was our worst set — it takes us some time to get used to the court, to get used to the players, and we did and got that second game.”
While the Colts celebrated a crucial victory, Tigers’ head coach Vicky Groat helped her team overcome any momentary shock they may have experienced.
“I thought we didn’t pass very well in game two and a lot of things broke down, while Hillsdale came out inspired and played how they needed to play,” she said. “At the start of game three I told them it was the best 2-of-3 games now and they just responded well. We had a quick start, our passing came along well, and Megan and Carly started hitting.”
Megan Toth and Carly Dickerson were far from perfect Tuesday, but they were always in the right place with precise timing and execution at the biggest moments it seemed.
As Jones said, “they just kept hitting it at us, being aggressive” and there was only so much the Colts could do to match them.
Leutheuser said while the powerful duo isn’t necessarily intimidating to her, they certainly disrupt the flow of the game.
“I’ve been playing against them, because we’re the same age, since I was a freshman, so I’m used to it. I’m not really intimidated by them, but it kind of puts more pressure on the block to help out the defense, so that was a focus for us tonight,” she said. “I think (St. Phil) just keeps really good composure. And in this game, they kept it going really fast with balls and I think we could’ve used some time between plays to come together and re-focus as a team. But they’re also really strong and every time one of their players make a mistake they just shake it off and re-focus.”
Helping Toth and Dickerson out was freshman Amanda Mackenzie, who had the final two kills of the third set and several no-doubt, big-time finishes in the fourth game.
“In game four Amanda (Mackenzie) finally woke up and made some big hits. I think a little nerves got to her early,” Groat said.
For the Colts it was Leutheuser leading the way with 15 kills, while Barber had 11 (to go with 14 digs) and Laura Wonders added eight.
Lantis had a team-high 28 assists and Callie Watkins tallied nine digs.
While Groat’s team continues its quest for a fourth consecutive state title, the Colts can find solace in what the Tigers’ coach had to say about them.
“I was surprised the way they played when we went down there — that’s not the Hillsdale team that I would assume we would play against,” she said. “When I watched them in the district finals they played with a lot of confidence and desire and they did the same thing tonight. They didn’t want to lose and they’re a good team and Katherine does a great job over there, especially in her first year.”
Jones said she will remember her first Academy team as being “so much fun to coach and be around” and as a group that really came together and went above and beyond what she asked.
Leutheuser had a hard time pinning down her favorite memory of the 2009 campaign, but had two that stood above the rest.
“It would probably be a tie between the North Adams game, because I feel like that was a really strong turnaround point for our team where we really came together, and then the regional championship,” she said. “We didn’t get that last year and I wanted that really badly and us five seniors had worked so hard together, so that was awesome.”