St. Philip volleyball coach Vicky Groat watched her team practice on Thursday, ahead of today’s Class D state semifinal against Onaway.
For the 15 players, it was the last practice of what has already been an incredible year, and the final practice for the Tigers’ seven seniors. And while the goal of reaching and winning a state final still hangs in the balance, Groat acknowledged that the 2012 St. Philip squad will go down as one of the best the school has seen.
That’s saying a lot for a program that has won a state-record 17 championships, including the last six.
“Yeah I’ll put them in that class,” Groat said. “It’s hard to say because they are different teams. Yeah we have the most wins, but every four or five years, there’s that group that makes each team or group special. This year it’s a lot of seniors. It definitely is one of the better teams we’ve had. Maybe because of the success that we’ve had, but skill-wise, I think we’re right up there with all the other ones.”
The Tigers are 71-2-1 overall, setting the school benchmark for wins in a season. But they didn’t compile that record with a cupcake schedule.
One of St. Philip’s losses came to a Gull Lake squad that was ranked No. 1 in Class A for much of the season — but one of the Tigers’ wins also came against the Blue Devils. The other loss came in the second week of the season to a Livonia Churchill team that finished the year ranked No. 9 in Class A. St. Philip also has a win over Class A semifinalist Temperance Bedford.
“We’ve played some amazing teams,” said senior outside hitter Amanda McKinzie. “When our team here comes together and is prepared, confident, goes out there and is energetic, it usually works and we can play against anyone.”
McKinzie is the first in a long line of St. Philip players that opponents try to stop. The Virginia Tech-bound senior was crowned the state’s Miss Volleyball Award winner this week, and has played on the Tigers’ last three state championship squads.
Then there is junior outside hitter Sierra Hubbard Neil, a club volleyball teammate of McKinzie’s and a 2011 first-team All-State selection who is generating a lot of Division I interest.
Leland coach Laurie Glass has faced some good St. Philip squads over the years, playing the Tigers in the 2002, 2005 and 2006 state finals. Groat’s first state championship as coach came in 2005 against a Leland team that featured Glass’ daughter, Alisha, the state’s all-time kills leader.
After the top-ranked Tigers swept fourth-ranked Leland in the state quarterfinal, Glass said it may have been the best St. Philip team she’s seen yet.
“They’ve always had a good fundamentaly sound team. But they have like two or three kids that swing,” Glass said. “You can’t key on anybody. You can talk about Amanda, but you’re not going to stop her. So you know she’s going to get hers, then there is Sierra. And then you got (Samantha Ellis) swinging from the right side. It is literally, ‘good luck’.”
St. Philip senior Casey Gallagher has played along side McKinzie on the last three state championship squads. She said the Tigers are clicking because of their chemistry off the court, but she isn’t ready to say that they’re the best team in school history.
“I like this team because I feel like this is the closest team, it’s got my best friends on it, and I’m playing with family too,” Gallagher said. “I think we’ve worked hard enough to be in that group, but I wouldn’t say we’re the best team. We work as hard as everybody else, but we’re just another St. Philip team and I’m proud to be on it.”
Today marks the 34th time the Tigers have played in the Final Four since the state tournament began in 1976. If St. Philip can get by fifth-ranked Onaway (48-3-3), it will play for a state championship on Saturday for the 12th consecutive season. A state title will make it seven straight, one shy of the state record set by Marysville (1997-2004).
Regardless of how it plays out, Groat knows this season has been something special.
“It’s talked about since Day 1 — our ultimate goal is to win and we’ll do everything we can to do that,” Groat said. “If it happens that we do lose, we have to look back that we did some amazing things this year and after time it will sink in that we did some good things and should be proud of that. It is just a game, there are bigger things in life than winning this title, but that’s what we want right now.”