BY DAN STICKRADT
OXFORD — Just its track record in volleyball makes Birmingham Marian an intimidating opponent. Give the Mustangs an advantage and they become an even taller order to defeat.
Lake Orion found that out Thursday in a Class A regional final at Oxford High School.
Marian took a quick 1-0 lead in just 20 minutes and then held off the Dragons 3-0 to win the school’s seventh straight regional championship. The Mustangs rolled to wins of 25-13, 25-20 and 25-19 to prevail over the Dragons, who were making their first appearance in the regional finals in 22 years.
The Mustangs (66-6-1) will host Fraser in a state quarterfinal next Tuesday. Lake Orion finishes the year 41-17-7.
While Marian has made several trips to the state quarterfinals, state semifinals and beyond, including last year’s state championship run, the Mustangs have dealt with its fair share of adversity this season. Marian has played games with as many as three starters out with injuries and lost Miss Volleyball candidate and Iowa-bound Alexandra Lovell midway through the first game against the Dragons.
The Mustangs’ depth and balance was still too much for Lake Orion to handle.
“We’re playing adjustment volleyball,” said Marian coach Irick Gardner. “With starters coming in and out of the lineup (with various injuries) and players shifting from the back to the front row, we’ve had to (make adjustments). There have been a lot of adjustments, but we are doing a good job with it.”
In Game 1, Marian’s quick 2-0 lead ballooned to 15-6 and 20-9 advantages. The Dragons could not close the gap down to single digits in the first game.
While 6-foot-2 Alessandra Dietz, who is headed for Loyola Marymount, had here way at the net for Marian, the Mustangs had several players step up and fill the void for Lovell, who Garnder expects to be back by Tuesday’s quarterfinal.
Marian is used to not having a full lineup and that could be beneficial in the later stages of the postseason, having to go deeper into the bench to develop experience in a big-game situation.
“I just told them today we have to be the most mentally tough team in the state because of the ups and downs with injuries,” said Gardner.
The Dragons, who won their first district title since 1995 this season and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since the winter 1988 season, just had far too many unforced errors. In fact, the Dragons had nine serves alone sail into the net.
Lake Orion held just one lead the whole night, and that was 6-5 in the third game. That advantage was short-lived, as a service error prompted Marian to draw even at 6-6. The Mustangs closed out with a 19-13 run to end that match, which took just 1hour, 10 minutes to complete.
“We just made a lot of mistakes,” admitted Lake Orion coach Bob Howey, whose team had many of its service errors off jump serves. “Part of the game plan was that if our jump servers were on) then maybe we get the points we want out of it. We went for the gamble the first game. We didn’t play very well in that first game.”
Lake Orion kept close in the second and third games between the play of juniors Shannon Murdock and Liz Kalugar, both whom registered 11 kills on the night. Maddie Hutchinson, the school’s all-time leader in digs, added 14 digs, Alyssa Wesley chipped in with 28 assists and Linnea Berriman had five kills and three blocks for the Dragons.
The final two games were much closer, and Marian never built leads of more than eight points in those games. The Mustangs’ 20-12 advantage in Game 2 was its biggest, but the Dragons went on a 6-1 run to close to within 21-18.
In Game 3, Marian never had a lead larger than five points. Deitz’s free ball was not returned, as the Mustangs closed out with
Dietz finished the night with 15 kills and three blocks. Kari Fidelholtz added 12 kills, Mary Henry added 31 assists and Erin Klosterman scooped up 15 digs for Marian.
The Mustangs have played at a high level and have reached the regionals every year since 2005. The last time Marian did not escape its district was 2004, when they were knocked out by Birmingham Groves, which itself made a run to the state quarterfinals that season.
“We’ve had a great run,” said Gardner, whose program has reached at least the quarterfinals in 10 of the past 11 seasons. “Fraser is a good team and we’ve seen them once this year. We’ll be ready for them.”