by Geoff Mott
ST. LOUIS - The Valley Lutheran volleyball team grew taller and taller with each tournament this year, capturing its first regional title since 1983.
It looked like a giant early in Tuesday's Class C quarterfinal match with Morley-Stanwood, winning the first two games in thrilling fashion over the No. 2 ranked team in the coaches poll.
But the Mohawks stood a little bit taller Tuesday.
By an inch.
"We had to focus on each point in each game to come back on them," said 6-foot-2 senior Alexis Huntey, who finished runner-up in the Michigan Miss Volleyball award as the state's top prep player. "We played great against a Valley Lutheran team that was amazing. I don't even know what to say."
Huntey couldn't slow down a Valley Lutheran squad that fed off an energy frenzy from a large, vocal student body that arrived moments before the first serve.
But while the Chargers erased a 10-point deficit in the second game to grab a 2-0 lead with 25-21, 25-23 victories, Morley-Stanwood remained stoic. After winning 25-15 and 25-20 in the third and fourth games, the Mohawks went point-for-point with the Chargers in the fifth game and won 15-13 to advance to Friday's Class C semifinals against Charlevoix (49-4-6) in Battle Creek.
Valley Lutheran bows out of the playoffs with a 39-18-3 record, which is tied for the second best finish in school history.
"I can't say enough about how proud I am of this team, in how they've grown up during the season," Valley Lutheran coach Jon Frank said. "I knew they had this kind of potential and they worked to reach it. They have nothing to hold their heads about. They were tough."
Valley Lutheran built a 7-1 lead in the first game and used crisp passing and opportunistic hitting to keep Morley-Stanwood off-guard. The Mohawks rallied to narrow the Valley Lutheran lead to 18-17, but Paige Sawicki produced five service points with the help of two powerful kills from Mikaela Yurgens and the Chargers won the first game 25-21.
Morley-Stanwood rallied back in the second game with leads of 20-10 and 22-14, but the Chargers kept stealing the momentum. Jessie Askew produced five service points and after Huntey got another sideout to give the Mohawks a 23-18 lead, Valley Lutheran forced the Mohawks into three-straight errors. A Yurgens kill, a Morley-Stanwood misplay and a tip to floor from Sarah Appold gave Valley Lutheran the 25-23 win and all of the momentum.
"We knew this would be close because Valley Lutheran plays such incredible defense," Morley-Stanwood coach Robin Kozuch said. "They've got some great hitters and they really found some open spots. They have a few players who aren't as powerful, but they do such a great job of finding those corners."
When play resumed for the third game, Huntey huddled up her team. With a big smile on her face for the whole speech, the senior who heads to play collegiately at George Washington University next year breathed confidence into her younger teammates.
"She knows that if the players see her frazzled, they will fall apart," Kozuch said. "Even if the smile is just for show and that she's nervous inside, she has to remain strong."
Kozuch rose to the occasion and elevated the play of freshman Kayla Rosman. Valley Lutheran led the third game 4-1 early, but the Mohawks rallied to grab a 10-7 lead. The Mohawks, behind three powerful kills from Huntey, expanded their lead to 19-12 and Rosman finished off the 25-15 win with strong serving.
The Mohawks never trailed in the fourth game, leading 5-1 and 10-5 before the Chargers narrowed the margin to 16-15 on a Sam Schafer block. But Rosman came through with two blocks to increase the lead to 23-19 and finished off the game with a huge kill down the middle of the floor.
"We let them back in it," Frank said. "Our girls had great poise in coming back in that second game. We played with a lot of heart. My hats off to Morley-Stanwood. There's a reason (Huntey) was up for Miss Volleyball. We didn't execute late and we lost discipline. We didn't come out like the three-game sweep against (Unionville-Sebewaing in the regionals)."
Both teams went point-for-point in the deciding fifth game and the biggest lead was a 10-7 lead Valley Lutheran possessed after the Chargers won a long rally that included Kaelin Martlock making a diving save in front of the Valley Lutheran student section to keep the ball in play.
Huntey responded for the Mohawks, slamming a kill to get possession back and finding open spots to help her team to a 13-12 lead.
After a mad scramble, Valley Lutheran tied the fifth game at 13-13, but Huntey went down the line for another point and then served the Mohawks the 15-13 victory.
"These girls play for eachother and for the relationship of a team," Frank said of his Chargers. "This goes beyond volleyball for them. They know the connection with sports. It's a hard lesson learned in sports, a hard lesson in life. These girls are wise beyond their years.
"You can see that since the start of the season."
It's the final season for seniors Sarah Appold and Katie Hackman. The Chargers return a solid nucleus in Schafer, Sawicki, Martlock, Kierra Wolverton, Ali Fischer and Yurgens.
"We grew as a team and exceeded our expectations," Appold said. "That was a great team on the other side and we put everything we had into it and we didn't go down easy."
Appold still has potential long runs in state playoffs for basketball and softball left in her senior season. She enjoys the atmosphere that the Valley Lutheran community of students, parents and faculty provide for each sport.
"Our student section was behind us the whole way and they are a good reason why we're good," Appold said. "Our sports teams feed off of that energy."