HUDSONVILLE — The Kalamazoo Christian Volleyball Team didn’t panic when they trailed Shelby 1-0 in the first set of the Division 3 quarterfinals on Tuesday night from Christian Unity High School. of Hudsonville.
The Comets went straight back to business to win sets 2 and 3 and regain control of the game.
Nor did they panic when a talented Tigers side roared in set 4 and forced a fifth-set tiebreaker, as they used their confidence, composure and skill to secure a 15-8 win in the deciding set to outlast Shelby and advance to the schedule’s first-ever Division 3 state semifinals.
The Comets will face Calumet, who beat McBain in straight sets, in the Division 3 semi-finals at 2 p.m. Friday. The winner will advance to the Division 3 State Championship on Saturday to face the winner of Pewamo-Westphalia and Cass City.
“Our school hadn’t reached the quarterfinals in about 15 years, so to get this far is extremely huge for our school and I’m really excited for these girls,” said Kalamazoo Christian head coach Carlie Southland. “We worked all year on our mental strength, and it played for us tonight. You need to have the mental toughness to bounce back from your mistakes, overcome the adversity of competition in a five-set match like this, and not lose your focus in such a big moment.
The Comets faced a lot of adversity against the Tigers on Tuesday night as they lost the first set of the match 25-22. They responded with 25-18 and 25-23 wins to regain momentum before Shelby won set 4 25-19 to push the match to a fifth set.
Kalamazoo Christian took a 5-3 lead before finishing the game as they edged the Tigers 10-5 to close out what was a wild game between two ultra-competitive teams.
“I kept thinking how badly I wanted to play on Friday,” junior Jovie Cochrain said in the fifth set. “They had a very good player who was slamming the ball throughout the game and I was just focusing on keeping the ball in play. Then I had to serve on that last point, and it was really stressful. I just wanted to make sure I got the ball over the net and I’m just glad we shut it down.
Kalamazoo Christian’s center hitters Mackenzie Ash and Marisa Fetterley used their length and athleticism to deflect enough power shots from Shelby’s sophomore Navea Gauthier to allow their team to set up critical runs in a game filled with swings of momentum.
“I love the adrenaline rush you get from being in the middle of the action like that,” said Fetterley, who will continue his volleyball career at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “I was just focused on getting my block up, stopping him and getting hits to him without throwing it all out.
“We were pretty confident going into that fifth set because we knew we could pull it off. We just had to do our job and finish strong.
For Shelby, the heartbreaking loss leaves the program one win away from Battle Creek despite recovering at every opportunity.
“These girls have been like that all season,” Shelby head coach Tom Weirich said. “They’re a group of fighters and they’re a mentally tough team and they showed that again tonight. Coming into Game 4 and trailing 2-1 on the scoreboard, most teams would be shut down or started to turn around in frustration, but this group just kept picking up and fighting for each other. It’s just their nature.
“They worked really hard tonight and we ended up losing to a fantastic team. We don’t come across many teams with such a size advantage over us, but they performed well with us in just about every way. Height can be the big equalizer in some games and I thought that came into play sometimes tonight.
Gauthier finished the game with 51 kills, a block, three aces and 22 service points to pace Shelby’s offense, while Audrey Horton added 55 assists, Morgan Weirich had 38 digs and six assists, Claire Gowell had four kills and Biloxi Lee had 21 digs. , two aces and 22 service points.
“She’s a unicorn. She’s just different,” Weirich said of her second star. “It’s not just physically either. Her mental game is also strong and her work ethic is second to none. This what she does for her teammates is amazing and it’s infectious to see how she brings them together and makes them better.
“She’s used to playing at a really high level on her travel league teams, so for her to come here and play with teammates who aren’t year-round volleyball players and who come in with an attitude so positive and inspiring is truly awesome, she has an amazing future ahead of her and she is already breaking milestones that are usually reserved for celebrations in the past year.
“She surpassed 1,000 career kills in Game 5 of her sophomore year and is probably close to having 1,000 kills this season alone. She’s just an incredible athlete and an even better human being.
The loss also meant the end of a journey for the father-daughter duo of Tom and Morgan Weirich, as the two shared a few smiles and shed a few tears long after the game was over.
“It was really fun until now when we both realized it was over,” Coach Weirich said. “It stings right now, but if you had offered me a run to the state quarterfinals at the start of the year, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.
“She sheds some of the biggest tears in the locker room because she’s a senior and she knows she can’t compete with this group anymore. She cried the same way when she was in sixth or seventh grade watching varsity teams in 2016 and 2017 losing in the quarter-finals. She has always been so invested in the team and the program, so it’s hard to know that this is the last time she will put on the Shelby jersey and compete.
“All of these elders will leave a legacy here. They are going to have their name on a banner in our gymnasium after winning the conference for the first time since 1999 and winning a district and area title as well. I’m sure it will be hard for them to take this in for the next week or two but once the pain of this loss wears off I think they’ll realize they’ve put on an awesome season – probably one of the best seasons this program has ever had.
Despite losses to Weirich, Gowell and Gladys Moncada-Pineda, Shelby’s volleyball program should once again be a title contender in 2023 and Tuesday’s loss cemented that for their coach.
“I’m so proud of this team,” he said. “It wasn’t a perfect night for us, but we fought until the end and put ourselves in a position to win at the end, that’s all you can really ask for as a coach. After watching this team respond to every time we fell behind tonight, I’m confident we’ll be back next year and probably going to be a little hungrier after losing this game. I think every girl in this locker room wants to come back here and have another chance.