The St. Philip volleyball team will take the court at Kellogg Arena on Thursday — a sight that many have long predicted.
The top-ranked Tigers (62-7-2) will roll into the state semifinal against No. 9 Crystal Falls Forest Park (31-1-5) as the proverbial favorite, having won the last seven Class D championships.
But take away what the program has done in the past — including a state-record 18 volleyball championships — and you’re left with a talented Tigers team that has little experience on the big stage, save for senior outside hitter Sierra Hubbard-Neil.
“They have the varsity experience, but not of lot of playing experience in tough situations,” said St. Philip coach Vicky Groat. “They’ve all played on varsity, but I think the thing that has gotten them prepared was who they were playing against last year in practice, going against some of the best girls in the state in practice. That has made the transition a little easier. They understand the pressure because they have been around it.”
Hubbard-Neil, the runner-up for the 2013 Miss Volleyball Award, is the Tigers’ go-to player. The Western Michigan-bound standout served as St. Philip’s No. 2 hitter on three state championship teams, playing along side the 2012 Miss Volleyball winner in Amanda McKinzie.
“We’re a team. It’s not Sierra and everybody else,” Groat said. “The kids feed off of Sierra. She gets a big hit down and it pumps them up, then someone else wants to do that. It’s a team. I don’t consider her a star, because she doesn’t act like it. They’re all role players, but the kids do feed off Sierra.”
St. Philip is playing in its 13th-straight Final Four on Thursday, but Hubbard-Neil is the only returning player with starting experience. Junior middle hitter Emily Freybler, sophomore middle hitter Abby McKinzie, senior libero Rachel Gallagher, junior outside hitter Megan Parker, senior outside hitter Stephanie Gusching and junior setter Emily Schaub all return, but are now playing major roles in the Tigers’ latest tournament run.
With so much inexperience, St. Philip got ready for the state tournament by way of a brutal schedule that included contests against 12 teams that finished the season ranked or honorable mention. The Tigers went 9-3 in those matchups, including wins over Hudsonville (No. 9 in Class A), Grand Rapids South Christian (No. 4 in Class B) and Mendon (No. 1 in Class C).
“It prepared us because our record was so good last year and we didn’t lose as many games, but this year it opened up our eyes that St. Philip can lose,” Hubbard-Neil said. “We did lose against some of those big top-class teams, which is good because we focused on what we needed to fix, and just came out even harder.”
Freybler appeared in last year’s state semifinal as a reserve. Now a key starter and one of four seniors, she said this year’s squad is carving out its own legacy.
“I think we have our own identity this year. Obviously we’ve been great in years past, but we are our own team,” Freybler said. “And I know that we can do this tomorrow. Crystal Falls is obviously a good team if they made it here, so we’re just going to go out and play our best.”
Crystal Falls Forest Park is located in the Upper Peninsula, and will make the nearly eight-hour trip through Wisconsin and Illinois to play in the semifinal. Meanwhile, St. Philip is located just 0.5-miles from Kellogg Arena, giving the Tigers a distinct home-court advantage.
Still, playing against an opponent located 500 miles away does present challenges.
“Usually we have video on our opponents, but now we don’t have video. So I guess there’s is kind of that little bit of fear (of the unknown),” Hubbard-Neil said. “But we’re going to go in there and play like we know how to play. They have players who can score and so do we, so it’s going to be a good match.”
St. Philip will combat a Trojans team that has experience at Kellogg Arena, as the two squads last met there in the 2011 state semifinal. Forest Park senior Lexi Gussert — the state’s No. 1 basketball player who is committed to Michigan State — was a sophomore on the squad that fell to St. Philip.
“Watching some of the film from ’11, she was amazing as a sophomore. I can only imagine what she’s going to be like tomorrow,” Groat said of Gussert. “They always have good defense. They have no fear. They are coming down here ready to play. They have been here in the past, so they know what to expect. They’re not just the girl in the middle, there’s a good team around her. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
The experience of playing under the bright lights of Kellogg Arena can only add nerves to an already tense situation — something Freybler found out last year.
“It’s very surreal when you walk in there because it’s so bright and looks all pretty, especially when you first walk in because no one is in there,” she said. “And then you get the crowd in there too, so it’s very overwhelming, but you just have to find it within yourself to calm yourself down. It’s a great experience and I loved it last year, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
St. Philip’s fans have undoubtedly been making plans for Saturday’s 10 a.m. final, where the Tigers could match Marysville’s state record for eight consecutive titles. But they will first have to get by a skilled Forest Park team on Thursday to make that happen.
“Every year the expectation is to be in the Final Four and the Finals and hopefully to win it,” Groat said. “Our goal isn’t to win a district. It’s the biggest stage, that’s where we want to be. That will never change, no matter who we graduate. We have to reach for the stars.”
Groat added she is proud of what her team has achieved this season, regardless of how Thursday’s semifinal plays out.
“If we lose tomorrow, give your best and leave everything on the court, there’s nothing more we can ask as coaches,” she said. “We’ve done amazing things this season and we should be proud, whether we win another title or not. We want to win more than anything, but when it’s all said and done, did the coaches and players do their best and we were beat by a better team, than so be it.
“I think we’re prepared. We’re just going to have to play our best, and hopefully we come through with a win. If not, it’s been a great ride.”