Battle Creek bound, Cardinals top four in the state

by Angie Asam – Staff Writer

The Onaway Cardinals varsity volleyball team’s historical postseason run now takes another turn as the team heads south to Battle Creek today (Friday) to play in the state semifinals against Battle Creek St. Philip at 2 p.m. The winner moves on to the state championship game Saturday at 10 a.m. against the winner of the Mendon/Beal City semifinal game.

In the past week the Cardinals have not only won their first ever Class D regional title but have now won their first ever state quarterfinal match as they continue to make history.

Tuesday the Cardinals traveled to Manistique to take on Crystal Falls Forest Park in the state quarterfinals. A fan bus and many parents’ cars were packed to capacity with people as the “Ozone” made the trip north to cheer on their Lady Cards. The team didn’t disappoint as they swept the Lady Trojans in three, 25-17, 15-10 and 25-13 to advance.

The battle began before the teams even took the court as the fans battled each other in volume about six minutes prior to the first action. The fans continued to battle, along with their teams, throughout the match. Regardless of who won the fan battle it was the Cardinal fans that got to cheer their team on to victory.

“I think that for the girls knowing that there was an entire bus full of kids coming to watch them play was exciting. They knew they were going to be getting that kind of support. They had someone send them a photo of the fan bus. The fans enjoyed it, they had a good time with it. I think our girls still would have played well without them but it was comforting for them to know they had all that support,” said coach Steve Watson.

In game one Onaway started the game in serve receive, a kill by junior Devin Bristley gave the Cards an early 1-0 advantage and the serve. The second point would be a long battle with both teams making good defensive plays as the other tried to put the ball away, the volley would end when Forest Park was called for being in the net giving the Cardinals a 2-0 advantage. 

There would be several more long volleys but with the score tied at 2 the Cardinals rattled off five straight points to take a 7-2 lead, they would never look back as they controlled the match. The Trojans showed fire for a while bringing the score to 17-15 before Onaway called a timeout and returned to the court poised to put the game away going on a 8-2 run to end the game and take a 1-0 lead in the match.

Behind the serving of Bristley in game two as well as a good tip by Sara Fullerton, two kills and a tip by Mariah Ehrke and two aces the Cardinals jumped out to an 8-0 lead that they would never look back from as they easily took game two.

“You know the girls established from the beginning of the match that they were going to play hard and they were going to be focused. They didn’t show any unusual signs of being nervous or tight. I could tell from warm-ups that they knew it was a big match. They clearly understood the situation they were in. We didn’t talk specifics, I didn’t want to overwhelm them. We focused on what we needed to do and they went out there and played hard. We bounced back quickly from our mistakes and capitalized on theirs and ultimately it was a fairly dominating performance,” said coach Watson.

WITH THEIR backs against the wall the Lady Trojans came out looking to battle for game three and get themselves back into the match. The two had a see saw battle to start the game. With the score tied at 10 senior Kallie Shimel stepped to the service line and rattled off two aces. The Trojans followed with four errors on their side to give the Cardinals a 16-10 lead, again they never looked back as they outscored the Trojans 9-3 to end the game and advance to the state semifinals for the first time in school history.

Ehrke finished the day with nine kills, three aces, 11 digs and a block. Bristley had eight kills, four aces and 16 digs. Fullerton had four kills, two aces, four digs and two blocks. Ehrke and Fullerton also teamed up for the winning block to end the match. 

Megan Estep finished with 19 assists, eight digs and a block. Meagan Self had four kills, Lexi Szymoniak had 12 digs and Emily Estep added eight digs.

“For me as a coach I think the equalizing factor in sports can be work ethic and preparation. Those things to me in a team sport, if you want to be a champion those things have to be there. For most of us we have to work really, really hard to have continued success. When you see our girls going all over the court for the ball, that is the evolution of our program for the future. We have had some really talented players and some really good teams, but we have never had a team that can or will do what these girls are doing. They will chase the ball down until the whistle. It is our philosophy. They have set a standard, that is going to be an expectation for the future. The kids willing to work like that are going to be the kids who play,” said coach Watson.

FRIDAY’S MATCH will be no easy task, as no postseason match is. Battle Creek St. Philip enters the contest at 72-2-1, the number one ranked team in the state. Looking at the numbers and the history it appears as a David vs. Goliath matchup, but as the famous sports cliché goes, “on any given day. any given team can  beat any other given team.” 

As Onaway advances to its first appearance in the final four, St. Philip is a seasoned veteran, they have appeared in 34 of the 38 final fours since the state volleyball tournament began in 1976.

They have won a state record 17 state titles and have been the state runner-up eight times including six consecutive state titles entering this season. They have appeared in the state finals match every year since 2002 finishing as the champions seven times and the runner-up four times (Note, because of the season switch there was actually two state title games in the calendar year 2007).

But anyone who has faced Onaway this season knows, they won’t shy away from the competition, they won’t quit hustling on defense and they simply will not give up. They will continue to work together to put together the best match they can and fight for every single point.

“We set a goal to get to Battle Creek. We knew there was a challenge in that. What we will discuss now is that when you get to a big huge game you can have that ‘we are just happy to be here and enjoy it’ attitude or you can come with the ‘we are coming in and we are going to put our nose to the grindstone and work and we are coming to win’. To be truthful we have to find that medium. It is a big deal and it is special, we are going to recognize that but we are back to work. Getting down there and playing on that floor is an accomplishment, but we are going to work, we aren’t going down there to get beat. We are going to put out the effort we have been all season and we are going to rise to the challenge,” said Watson. 

THE CARDINALS defeated Rudyard (25-21, 25-19, 25-7) in the regional championship last Thursday.

Rudyard got the first point of the first two sets but the Cardinals played under control in the match to win their first ever regional championship. 

Coach Steve Watson has seen improvement in his team each year, but knows this team has its sights set on more.

“We have been to the regional finals and never won. This year we won the conference and regionals and had never done those things in the same year. Now that we’ve gotten this far, I can let it be known that we are not satisfied with just the regional. We want to keep winning, ” Watson said. 

The coach said the players have a no-quit attitude, taking every game as a challenge to be conquered. 

“They demand a lot of themselves on the court and they worked really hard throughout the year,” Watson said. “It is not just about the talent but the work ethic and they’ve got both.”

Senior setter Megan Estep led the way with 42 assists and four kills and Ehrke had 16 kills, two aces and 15 digs. Bristley added 15 kills and Fullerton had five kills, three digs and three blocks. Szymoniak had eight kills and 11 digs. Emily Estep added 12 digs.