BATTLE CREEK – Prior to the start of the season, Lakewood volleyball coach Kellie Rowland wasn’t even considering her team making it back to the state finals for the second time in three years.
“In August, I would’ve wondered if we were going to win a match,” the 21-year coach said.
It was an exaggerated statement, as the Vikings would return a handful of key players from the 2015 team that reached the Class B state quarterfinals. But from Rowland’s perspective, her squad had some work to do if it planned on maintaining its role as a consistent threat by the time postseason play rolled around.
Lakewood got it together quickly, holding the state’s top-ranked spot for more than half of the season, and found its way back to the sport’s final day for the second time since 2014. But the Vikings weren’t able to complete the mission, as they ran into a lengthy No. 2-ranked North Branch Saturday at Battle Creek’s Kellogg Arena and fell in three sets – 15-25, 21-25, 20-25 – in the Class B state final.
“We had some work to do. We had great defense, but we literally had no offense at the beginning of the year,” Rowland said. “They were young, and they had to learn to hit.
“We’re very proud of (the girls). They’ve had a great year.”
For all-state senior setter Gabie Shellenbarger, a four-year varsity player, Saturday’s state title match was the moment she had been eyeing all season. Shellenbarger was a member of the Lakewood team that fell to the Broncos in the state title game in 2014, and she was a pivotal part of last year’s team that made another deep postseason run.
And for someone who’s been on the cusp of multiple state titles, her final match of her high school career was tough to digest.
“I really thought we’d put up a better fight,” said Shellenbarger, who had a team-high 23 assists. “We all knew this was our goal to get back, and I think we all kind of settled with that.”
When the Vikings (53-6) struggled this season, Rowland said it was often due to the opposing team’s length. North Branch had a lot of size around the net and 6-foot-1 senior Olivia Fike, who had seven kills, was a person who Rowland singled out for giving her team trouble during the contest.
“She had the match of her life, and we had no answer for her,” Rowland added. “I had no one big enough to go against her. We tried some different things, but she still went over us.”
Lakewood jumped out to a 5-1 lead in Game 1, but the Broncos (57-9) started to find their footing midway through the opening set. North Branch, trailing 3-6, rattled off a 14-3 run halfway through the first set. The Broncos went on to close Game 1 by taking six of the final nine points.
The Vikings didn’t seem staggered by North Branch’s dominant performance, as they held a 16-11 lead midway through the second set, thanks to a flurry of points from junior Breanna Wickerink, who had a team-high 11 kills. But the Broncos rallied back and finished the set with a 14-5 scoring spurt.
“You can only think positive, and that there’s three more sets that you can win,” Shellenbarger said of her team’s two-set deficit. “You just have to battle.”
Lakewood did battle in the final set, but it was a little too late. North Branch jumped out to a 16-8 lead before the Vikings were able to string together a serious run. A block from junior Lisa Hewiit ignited another spurt for Lakewood and it was able to cut its deficit down to 17-20. But the two teams went back and forth down the stretch, which didn’t favor the Vikings.
Senior Rebecca Kutch will remember her final season as one of growth. Much like Rowland, Kutch wasn’t sold early on that Lakewood had what was necessary to reach the finals. But as the season progressed, everyone’s mindset shifted.
“In the summer, we were just not looking good,” Kutch said. “We just kept growing and growing and getting better every day.
“I’m still very proud, even after today.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.