Battle Creek is the volleyball capital of Michigan, as each year the best teams in the state converge on Kellogg Arena for the MHSAA State Semifinals and Finals.
And every year since Kellogg Arena has hosted the semifinals and finals, a Battle Creek team has advanced to the final day of the season.
Last year, both St. Philip and Harper Creek had the opportunity to play under the bright lights of the state’s biggest stage, with the Fighting Tigers falling in the Class D state championship game and the Beavers eliminated in the Class B state semifinals. Both teams feel they have unfinished business and have their sights set on a return.
Lakeview is also a strong candidate to make a deep run this season, although the road won’t be easy in the Class A state tournament.
Both Battle Creek Central and Pennfield begin new eras with a pair of first-year head coaches. Winnie Lejukole will guide the Bearcats in the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference against fellow locals Lakeview and Gull Lake. Jon Morris takes over a Panthers squad that hopes to contend in the Interstate Eight Conference along with local schools Harper Creek, Coldwater and Marshall.
Around the area, a talented Bronson team has a bullseye squarely on its back after the Vikings won the Class C state championship in 2015. Calhoun Christian returns many of the players that helped the Cougars win the Mid-South Conference title a year ago. And both Coldwater and Marshall have the potential to dethrone Harper Creek atop the Interstate Eight.
Here’s a closer look at Battle Creek area high school volleyball teams for the 2016 season:
Battle Creek Central
Coach: Winnie Lejukole (first season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: Arianna Smith; Mya Trevino, Erion Traylor; Logann Jackson; Asjha Holden
Outlook: The Bearcats compete in a traditionally strong Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference, which will make wins hard to come by under first-year head coach Winnie Lejukole. Still, BCC has the playing experience and talent to build the foundation for a successful turnaround.
“The focus of the BCC volleyball team this year is to build structure again,” Lejukole said. “Starting on fresh and showing others what BCC volleyball can really do. It’s the Bearcats redemption year.”
Coach: Terra King (11th season)
2015 record: 52-6-2
Top returners: Charley Andrews, sr. MB; Katie Wade, sr. S; Jacey Bowers, sr. OH/L; Faith Hayes, so. OH
Outlook: The Beavers returned to Kellogg Arena for the second straight year, losing in the Class B state semifinals in 2015. Now the defending Interstate Eight Conference champs are hungry for more, led by All-State senior middle blocker Charley Andrews and All-State senior setter Katie Wade.
“I am so excited about this team,” King said. “We have a fantastic group of girls that have already been pushing each other and setting a high standard for our season. I love the expectations of a hard work and dedication that I sense in the gym every day. Our captains and returners are setting the tone by example with their level of play and the other girls are far exceeding everyone expectations.”
Coach: Heather Sawyer (15th season)
2015 record: 23-31
Top returners: Rose Tecumseh, sr. OH; Sidney Schiller, so. MB; Emma Morey, sr. S
Outlook: After finishing in the bottom half of the Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference a year ago, the Spartans appear primed to take a big step. Coming off a Class A All-State honorable mention season, Rose Tecumseh will be a problem for Lakeview’s opponents.
“We are seniors and sophomores this year and it’s an interesting mix of players,” Sawyer said. “I feel we are more athletic than we have been in the past couple of years and have been willing to learn daily on the technical and mental level this past week. We are working toward embracing a ‘growth mindset’ this season and see where that ultimately takes us.”
Coach: Jon Morris (first season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: Kaitlyn Baird, sr. S; Taylor Baird, sr. DS; Zoey McCleary, sr. S/OH; Jaylyn Shepard, jr. MB/OH; Shelby Smyers, so. OH
Outlook: The Panthers will appear much different in 2015 after graduating seven players and hiring a new coach in Jon Morris, a longtime MHSAA volleyball official. New-look Pennfield will try to make gains in the Interstate Eight Conference standings and surprise people in the Class B state tournament.
“We graduated the starting lineup from last year, so we have little experience at the varsity level,” Morris said “The goals for this year are, one – to show improvement at every tournament we go to; two -finish first in the conference; and three – go far in the state meet.”
Coach: Vicky Groat (18th season)
2015 record: 46-17-2
Top returners: Kameron Haley, sr. L; Kirstin Finnila, jr. OH; Taylor Pessetti, sr. S; Maya Segovia, so. MH; McKenna Haley, sr. DS; Delaney Rose, so. DS; Kailee Redmond, sr.
Outlook: The Tigers have some big shoes to fill from a team that reached the Class D state final, but the cupboard is far from bare. Leading the charge will be senior Kameron Haley, an All-State selection a year ago.
“This will be a rebuilding year, but our goal will be the same as always – win a state title,” Groat said. “The girls have been working hard in practice and we will have some growing pains along the way. I expect us to get better every day and be ready to compete for a title.”
Coach: Jacy Cole (eighth season)
2015 record: 10-29
Top returners: Aubrey Cole, sr. L; Josie Lamson, sr. S; Rachel Nobach, sr. OH; Tayler Eutsey, sr. OH; Lexi Goss, sr. MH; Miranda Brubaker, sr. DS; Aubrey Brunner, jr. MH; Adriana Holmquist, jr. S; Skyla Reynolds, jr. DS; Kara Waldron, so. MH; Madison Hoard, so. OH
Outlook: While the Indians saw their share of struggles in 2015, the team has a bevy of experience coming back with 11 returners. Athens will look to return to the top tier of the Big Eight Conference, led by senior libero Aubrey Cole, who earned Class D All-State honorable mention a year ago.
“We are very excited and optimistic about our upcoming season,” Cole said. “We have eleven returners and one newcomer; all very talented student-athletes, full of potential. With six seniors – four of them being three-year varsity players – we’re expecting to see a lot of positive leadership that will help carry us all the way to the MHSAA finals. Winning a state championship is always our top goal. We believe we have a schedule that will allow us to be challenged and successful at the same time. These ladies love the game of volleyball, and are looking forward to testing themselves as they play some of the best teams in the area.”
Coach: Teresa Angus (fifth season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: Emily Angus, sr. OH/MB; Jessie Morris, sr. OH; Ally Pennington, sr. DS; Bailey Whitcomb, jr. OH/DS; Carson Webb, jr. S; Marissa Moreno, jr. S; Gabby Costello, so. OH/DS;
Outlook: The Broncos have their work cut out for them competing in a Southern Central Athletic Conference that regularly produces some of the top Class D teams in the state. Still, Bellevue is excited about its potential, led by seven returning players.
“We are planning on coming out strong. We have some fresh talent on the court and some solid returning players,” Angus said. “We come from a very small community, where most of these girls have been playing sports together for years. They mesh very well, and we plan on using that as an asset this season. I am proud to say that I have a team of all leaders. That will definitely work to our favor. We are excited to get this season started.”
Coach: Jean LaClair (17th season)
2015 record: 57-10-3
Top returners: Jill Pyles, sr. MH; Allison Sikorski, sr. OH; Clare Mayes, sr. OH; Ashton Wronikowski, so, MH; Kiana Mayer, jr. S; Kiera Lasky, so. L; Adyson Lasky, jr. OH
Outlook: The Vikings return seven players from their Class C state championship team – including All-State senior outside hitters Jill Pyles and Allison Sikorski. So what will the defending Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph (B-C-S) Conference champions do for an encore?
“Our goals are pretty much the same year in and year out – to win the league title and to make a long run in the state tournament,” LaClair said. “This year’s team has some potential, but we have a long way to go to accomplish either of these goals. We lost some key components off last year’s team, and we will be working to fill those gaps for the first month of the season. This group seems to get along very well, which will help tremendously in the progress of season… I also love the fact that we are very versatile. Many kids can play multiple positions, making the fight for spots in the starting line up even harder.”
Coach: Taria Moser (sixth season)
2015 record: 25-3-4
Top returners: Kirby Frodge, sr. MH; Kara Twiest, sr. DS; Abby Parks, jr. MH; Lauren Wilcox, jr. OH/DS; Lindsey Barry, so. OH/DS
Outlook: The Cougars are looking to defend their Mid-South Conference championship, led by senior middle hitter and reigning league MVP Kirby Frodge. She’s among five returners who hope to put Calhoun Christian on top of the league once again.
“The ladies have worked incredibly hard during summer conditioning and preseason,” Moser said. “They have such determination and drive to push hard to be the best they can be for their team and themselves. As a team, they have an outstanding work ethic and team attitude which will bring a tremendous amount of grit, positivity, and fun to the court. We are looking forward to a successful year with this hard working, energetic, and talented team.”
Coach: Angela Gilbert (first season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: McKenzie Hennessy, sr.; Evelyn Lamb, sr.; Zenna Soule, sr.; Sara Gray, jr.; Megan Macomber, jr.
Outlook: The Panthers won their first district championship since 2007 and advanced to the regional finals a year ago, but will have to find a way to replace several key players from that squad. Leading the effort will be senior McKenzie Hennessy as well as first-year head coach Angela Gilbert.
“We are going to be tough all around,” Gilbert said. “We have a great back row base and depth in the front row. These ladies have that inner grit and desire to be tough competitors. I look forward to a great season.”
Coach: Kelsey Closson (second season)
2015 record: 19-19-5
Top returners: Jasmine Wellet, jr. MH; Jamie Wellet, jr. S/OH; Tyler Scheid, sr. OH; Drue Mullin, jr. OH
Outlook: The Cardinals showed a lot of growth in 2015, and with their nucleus back should contend for an Interstate Eight Conference title.
“We are taking that energy from where we ended last year and starting this season the same way,” said Closson. “The girls have been working incredibly hard in the offseason to improve their game both physically and mentally. I feel we have a very strong team this year and the girls are ready to fight… I feel like this year Coldwater is a threat, as long as we are playing together as one unit on the floor and we keep our confidence, we will be a competitive team. The girls are ready.”
Coach: Alexandria Culbert (fourth season)
2015 record: 29-25-5
Top returners: Abby Wooten, jr. OH; Sam Mohn, jr. S; Lillian Howard, jr. MH; Bailee Tigchelaar, sr. DS
Outlook: The Panthers are coming off a winning season in which they reached the Class C Regional Finals. Competing in the Valley Division of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Delton Kellogg feels like it can take the next step.
“We graduated four seniors last year, however we have quite a few returning players from last year’s team,” Culbert said. “It is a team goal that we continue to build on what we have been working on the last few years. This year it isn’t just about making it to the Regional Finals, but winning Regionals. In practices we focus on the task at hand to make up better each and every day.”
Coach: Eric Belz (second season)
2015 record: 30-27
Top returners: Taylor Ferguson, sr. OH/L; Jenna Burkhardt, so. MB; Kenzy Corstange, so. OH; Lauren Esman, so. S
Outlook: The Blue Devils won 30 matches and a Class A district title in 2015, and are looking for more in 2016. Gull Lake is excited about the return of sophomore Jenna Burkhardt, who led the team in kills, blocks and aces in her first varsity season.
“We are on the small side as only one player is taller than 5-foot-9,” Belz said. “However, all have played travel ball and more than half have played on local National teams. I expect these girls to compete in every match we play. As most teams go, if we serve and serve receive well – which I believe will be a strength – we should be successful.”
Coach: Emily Abbs (first season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: Jill Sitkiewicz, jr.; Megan George, jr.; Torey Winchell, sr.; Stephanie Bitz, sr.
Outlook: First-year head coach Emily Abbs has injected some energy into the Trojans. Led by four returners, Homer will look to climb the Big Eight Conference standings.
“Overall, we have good team chemistry because most of these girls have played together for at least one year,” Abbs said. “Homer’s varsity girls have a new attitude this season, which is much different than in past years. I would expect Homer to be seen towards the top of the Big Eight Conference this year.”
Coach: Sarah Carpenter (eighth season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: None
Outlook: After finishing in the bottom half of the Greater Lansing Athletic Conference, the Lions hope to turn the corner with a completely new roster.
“Our program has 16 total players ninth-12th grade, all 16 made a team and were given a specific role that they will play this season,” Carpenter said. “The girls are all excited and ready to take on the 2016 season.”
Coach: Bre Johnson (second season)
2015 record: n/a
Top returners: Rachel Rocco, sr. S/OH; Nikki Tucker, sr. MH; Chloe Webber, jr. MB; Mackenzie Benham, jr. OH
Outlook: The Redhawks return a strong nucleus from a team that finished runner-up in the Interstate Eight Conference. Marshall’s schedule won’t be easy to navigate, but the team feels it can compete and contend again for a league title.
“I am excited about the potential we have with this year’s team,” Johnson said. “We lost some key players last year but the new kids are ready to fill those shoes without skipping a beat. We kept 14 girls this year and I feel that any one of them can step in and do what is asked of them. We have a tough schedule for the first three weekends but we’re up for the challenge.”
Coach: Kasey Williams (first season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: Alyssa Lowe; Alyssa Hanks; Shayleona Kidder; Ariana DeJesus; Emily Hoyt; Heather Travis
Outlook: The Griffons hope to climb the Mid-South Conference standings in 2016 under first-year head coach Kasey Williams.
“We are looking forward to a great 2016 season,” Williams said.
Coach: Kelly Fedewa (first season)
2015 record: 22-15-1
Top returners: Noelle Rohde, sr. MH; Bailey Hoffman, jr. OH; Taylor Sinclair, sr. OH; Kiersten Washburn, sr. OH; Karli Corey, sr. S
Outlook: The Eagles begin a new era under first-year coach Kelly Fedewa. Olivet hopes to build off of last season’s district championship as it contends for a league title in a tough Greater Lansing Athletic Conference.
“Olivet will strive to be a solid passing team in order to allow the hitters to run a strong offense,” Fedewa said. “We will work towards becoming district champs again this year.”
Coach: Lori Tesch (eighth season)
2015 record: N/A
Top returners: Alexis Newbold, sr. S; Makayla Cole, sr. OH; Maria Barron, sr. OH
Outlook: The Indians lack size, but have enough experience to remain competitive in a tough Southern Central Athletic Association.
“We are a team with substantial game experience, which should help us out this season,” Tesch said. “Our biggest obstacle is our tallest player is about 5-foot-6, so our back row defenders are really going to have to step up for us to be successful this season. Our goal is to improve on our individual skills and to be competitive in every match that we play.”
Coach: Nicole Hammond (seventh season)
2015 record: 17-19-7
Top returners: Haley McIntosh, sr. OH; Rachel Wing, sr. MH; Cassie Thorpe, sr. S; Lauren Dibert, sr. OH; Brenna Johnson, sr. DS; Hailey Rivard, sr. OH; Carley Robertson, sr. DS; Ryleigh Shaffer, sr. DS
Outlook: The Chargers could see a quick turnaround from their losing season in 2015 and contend for the Big Eight Conference title. The team is not short on experience or leadership, as Union City features eight seniors this fall.
“I am looking for a successful season and would like to see us make a run for the top of the league,” Hammond said. “I have many talented seniors that would like to go out with a bang. Perseverance will be key for this group and to keep their goals in sight at all times.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley