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Fall Sports Preview: Volleyball

Josh VanDyke • Aug 17, 2018 at 1:00 AM

West Michigan has always been a hotbed for volleyball talent, and this fall might be one of the most impressive collections of teams that the area has ever seen.

Grand Haven returns a plethora of talent from a team that won 33 games last year and continued its district championship streak to 11 years. With standout performers like Ashley Slater and Avolyn Lepo, the Bucs will once again be the team to beat when the postseason begins.

Spring Lake returns several key pieces from a team that won a share of the O-K Blue Conference last fall. Madeline Zenas and Jenna Core will be the primary players to watch for the Lakers, but with eight seniors on the roster, the team should have plenty of experience to compete for another league title.

Fruitport is coming off a wild run to the state semifinals last fall and the Trojans might be even better in 2018. The team returns all but one starter from last year's team, so an experienced core group should push the Trojans forward as they compete for an O-K Black title and look to repeat their run through the playoffs.

Western Michigan Christian will field one of its most athletic teams in recent memory with players like Anna Sytsema, Meghan Heiss and Chloe Mitchell returning to the fold. The Warriors should be the team to beat in the Lakes Eight Conference and will be a difficult team to deal with at the Division 3 level.

Here's a deeper look into how each team looks this fall.

GRAND HAVEN

Head Coach: Aaron Smaka

Last Year: 33-21-1 overall; fifth in the O-K Red; district champions

KEY PLAYERS: Junior outside hitter Ashley Slater; senior middle hitter Avolyn Lepo, junior outside hitter Sarah Knoll, junior middle hitter Avery Strohmeyer, sophomore outside hitter Mackenzie Gross and senior middle hitter Olivia McMullen.

TEAM OUTLOOK: The Bucs return 11 players from last year's team, including two of last year's stat leaders in Slater and Lepo.

"This year's team will be a very offensive-minded team, and we will be focused on aggressively terminating the ball," said Smaka. "Our first contact, serving, putting hitters in winning situations, defense and team play will be the key to our overall success."

The Bucs return two setters in Samantha Boeve and Ashlyn Hall, who gained valuable experience last season and fine-tuned their skills during the offseason to be ready to run the Grand Haven offense this fall.

"We will be a really good passing and defensive team this year with Reilly Swierbut, Baby Hang, Rachel Hilburger and Reece Redder anchoring what will be a relentless core of defensive players," added Smaka. "We also have junior outside hitter Olivia Gross joining the team this year. She just moved here from Arizona and she will add some depth for us at the pin this season."

CONFERENCE OUTLOOK: "The O-K Red will be as tough as always, and we look to put ourselves in a position to win every match," Smaka added. "It is a great volleyball conference and a great challenge that always helps prepare us for the postseason. This team has great chemistry, is highly motivated and understands that it will take great effort and daily improvement for us to realize our goals. We will need everybody on the roster to buy in to make this happen and to be playing our best volleyball deep into November."

SPRING LAKE

Head Coach: Cassidy Hazekamp

Last Year: 30-6 overall; 10-2 O-K Blue; conference champions

KEY PLAYERS: Senior setter Madeline Zenas and senior outside hitter Jenna Core

TEAM OUTLOOK: "Our team this year is very senior heavy," said Hazekamp. "We have eight athletes returning to the team who have high expectations for this season. The key for this team is going to be continuing to improve every day. I am excited to work with this group, especially seeing the dedication and determination they have to improve every day since we started summer workouts.

"Madeline is a key part of our team and will make a huge impact for us this year," said Hazekamp. "She runs an effective, quick offense. As a setter, she does a great job of seeing the whole court and being aware of blockers and the other team's defense. She takes the time to get to know her hitters and delivering the ball to set each hitter up for success.

"Jenna will be another key part of our team this year. Her all-around game has improved immensely. Her volleyball experience will benefit her and our team a lot this season. She is a threat from all spots on the court. Jenna will be a great senior leader for us this season, and I am excited to see how her court sense and leadership, on top of her competitive nature, will help our team be successful."

CONFERENCE OUTLOOK: "One of our goals is to win the O-K Blue Conference outright," added Hazekamp. "We play in a competitive conference with well-coached teams, so we always have to bring our best. Winning the conference last year will certainly put a target on our backs.

"Grand Rapids Catholic Central, West Catholic and Coopersville will be competitive teams this year. This is a tough conference that will help us to prepare for the postseason. Our goal is to continue to improve every day and put ourselves in a position to win every match we play in."

FRUITPORT

Head Coach: Nicole Bayle

Last Season: 38-18-4; 10-2 O-K Black; district, regional champions, lost in the state semifinals to Notre Dame Prep

KEY PLAYERS: Senior libero Trinity Busscher, senior outside hitter Rachel Paulsen, senior middle hitter Kylie Oberlin, senior middle hitter Jordyn Carlyle and senior setter Kailey Carmean.

TEAM OUTLOOK: "We return seven players that played a great role in last year's visit to the state semifinals as juniors," said Bayle. "This year, we are looking to raise the bar and become a more consistent team from start to finish. Having seven returners that really grew up last year through our season, we are looking to start out the season strong and continue to grow and develop. The girls have put in a lot of work in the offseason and it shows on the court.

"Look for us to continue to have the ‘never give up' mentality this year, much like our season last fall. We are not the flashy team that carries a wealth of heavy hitters, but we are consistent and persistent and can wear a team down with our defense.

"I have been very proud of the way the girls entered the gym this summer. They are ready to work. As a coach, you always worry about your kids coming off a great season that they assume their work from last year just carries over to help them win games. However, this group has been laser-focused so far. They have goals for the season and have the right mentality to reach them."

CONFERENCE OUTLOOK: After falling one game short of a conference championship last season, the Trojans are motivated to get back to the top of the league standings and enter the postseason with an O-K Black Championship to their name.

"We hope to contend for a conference championship this season," added Bayle. "Jenison and Mona Shores will be our top competition in the standings, and we're hoping if we can stay hungry and focused during our league schedule that we will put ourselves in a position to do just that at the end of the regular season."

WESTERN MICHIGAN CHRISTIAN

Head Coach: Trent Smillie

Last Year: 26-24-1 overall; 5-1 Lakes Eight; finished second in the conference

KEY PLAYERS: Senior Anna Sytsema, junior Meghan Heiss, junior Chloe Mitchell, senior Rebecca TerHaar and junior Claudia Kingma.

TEAM OUTLOOK: "Every player will play an important role for us this season," said Smillie. "We are very deep in talent with many players putting in time to improve in the offseason. We are big at the net and we should be an exciting team to watch hit and block.

"We will be as big and athletic as any school I have seen at the Division 3 level. Our team's volleyball IQ is the highest it has ever been and this is one of the strongest groups of athletes ever on the volleyball team together at WMC. The level of play on both sides of the net at our practice is at a whole new high. Sometimes, I forget to coach them and just watch. The sky is the limit for this group of girls."

CONFERENCE OUTLOOK: "I think Ludington and ourselves should be the favorites in our conference this season," added Smillie. "Orchard View, Manistee and Muskegon Catholic will also be in the mix. We have a lot of goals for this season, and we are deep enough in talent to reach them with a lot of hard work. We would like to win a few of the tournaments we came close to winning last season and, of course, our conference. We want to advance as far as possible in the state tournament, and we want to push each other to a new level of play and maximize our abilities."

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