BY: MATTHEW B. MOWERY NOV 6, 11:25PM
PONTIAC — It’s one of the inevitables of the high school volleyball postseason.
When the playoff brackets come out, invariably Pontiac Notre Dame Prep, Marysville and North Branch will eventually be bound to run into one another at some point, before the Class B tournament runs its course.
More often than not, the survivor of those meetings is the favorite to take home the crown.
“Every year,” said North Branch coach Jim Fish, who has led the Broncos to three titles (2009, 2014, 2016) and three runner-up finishes.
The Marysville program had nine titles under former coach John Knuth, while Notre Dame Prep has three championships (2007, 20013, 2017), including last year’s, when they came through this very same regional.
“You do. You have to go through them (Marysville), and you have to go through North Branch. They probably have the (all-time) series on us,” Irish coach Betty Wroubel said. “I don’t know how many, but they beat us a lot of times.”
This year was no exception to any of those things, as Marysville, No. 2-ranked Notre Dame Prep, and No. 4-ranked North Branch all wound up in the same regional bracket again.
The host Fighting Irish (61-5) beat Marysville (21-18-8), 25-10, 25-13, 25-17, while North Branch (58-8) downed Birmingham Detroit Country Day (26-15-4), 25-14, 25-7, 25-16, setting up a regional final on Thursday between a pair of top 5 teams.
“It’s a state championship match,” Fish declared, without equivocation. “Whoever wins Thursday will be in the state finals.”
When the two met last season, it was No. 1 vs. No. 2 — but that didn’t matter much, as Notre Dame Prep walloped the Broncos at their own place, 25-15, 25-11, 25-12, before cruising the rest of the way to the title.
“I’m hoping they give us a chance on Thursday. … They have two All-Americans on their team. I’m not kidding. I hope it’s a competitive match. Because last year, it was not. Last year in the regional finals, they absolutely drilled us,” Fish said. “They were top 20 in the country last year. Nobody was going to beat them. And they’re not far off this year.”
What’s made the three programs into title contenders on a yearly basis is top talent.
Of the 16 Miss Volleyball awards given out, these three schools have accounted for four of them.
And of this year’s 10 finalists for the 2018 Miss Volleyball award, three will be on the floor in Thursday’s regional title match — Madeline Chinn and Natalie Risi for Notre Dame Prep, and Allyson Severance for North Branch.
“We know we’re really up against it. They’re really well-coached, with two phenomenal players. The two best players in the state,” Fish said. “We an unbelievably huge underdog. They have two of the top 250 players in the country. We know it. But you know what? We’ve got nothing to lose, because they’re supposed to beat us.”
Neither team had a tremendous struggle getting past Tuesday’s opponent, even though both underdogs put up a good fight.
Marysville tried to make players other than Chinn and Risi beat them … and they did.
“Yeah, they have two Miss Volleyball candidates on their team, but the rest of their girls are very good athletes, too. So picking your poison is a nice way to phrase it,” Marysville coach Amanda Busch said. “For us, we just needed to focus on doing our job on our side of the net. I was very proud of how we fought. It’s no secret: Notre Dame Prep is a very good team. I’m proud of how we fought. We got them in some really long rallies, and put some pressure on them at times. I’m proud of that.”
Chinn had 13 kills, and Risi 11, but Maria Famularo chipped in with 10, while three other players had four each. Risi added 13 digs, while Famularo had 12, and Olivia Kowalkowski had 11. Alyssa Borellis had 25 assists and Famularo had 17.
“They seemed to commit a block on our two Miss Volleyball people, Natalie and Maddy, so we went to the other people, and they had good games. Maria Famularo played probably her best game of the season, and our middles started to get a little bit more involved, which is what we’ve been doing the second half of the season,” Wroubel said.
“I thought we served very well. That was the strength of our game. We took them out of system. Marysville can be a very dangerous team, but our goal today was to take them out of system, and I thought we did that well.”
Risi led the Irish, who served at a 91.7 percent clip, with six aces.
North Branch didn’t have a lot of trouble getting past Country Day, either — even if the Broncos thought they might have a bit of trouble.
“I’m pleased with how we came out, because we pretty much dominated the match. We had a ton of respect for Country Day,” Fish said. “I watched them play Friday night in their district championship, and really thought it would be a much closer match.”
The Yellowjackets themselves thought the same thing, but wound up playing a bit out of character.
“We said from the start, we’re kind of a team that when we play loose, we play better. And we definitely were a little wound tight tonight. You could definitely tell it. Not until the final 10 points of the match did we start to have fun and loosen up a little bit,” DCDS coach Kim Lockhart said. “It was going to be a tall task, but we really thought it was going to be competitive. In that regards, it was a little bit of of a disappointment, but they have a great team. They served really tough.”
Traditionally, Country Day is probably the one team that wouldn’t expect to be in this field year after year, but Lockhart — along with seniors Kennedy Bearden and Audrey Petrucci, who have spent all four years under Lockhart since she came over from Grosse Pointe North — were trying to change that, winning their second straight district title.
“Since we’ve been here, they’ve really tried to change the culture at Country Day, because we’ve never been a volleyball school. We’ve won districts the last two years, which has just been a huge accomplishment ever in the history of Country Day,” Lockhart said. “There have been some good things. We won a couple of tournaments this year, and we’re hoping on just building on that with the underclassmen, like ‘Hey, when we get to this point, this is how it’s going to look.’”