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Elite 8: Grand Haven volleyball program celebrates rare senior class

Josh VanDyke • May 11, 2017 at 6:15 AM

Ask any high school varsity sports coach what the most difficult part of their job is, and you probably won’t have to wait long for them to mention replacing senior leadership.

The Grand Haven volleyball program has enjoyed a rare level of leadership at the varsity ranks this past fall with eight senior standouts in the playing rotation.

And while that stat itself is impressive, this particular group of student-athletes has achieved something even more improbable after their high school careers were over — all eight will be going on to play collegiate volleyball.

“We have known this was a special class all the way back to middle school,” said Grand Haven volleyball head coach Aaron Smaka. “It has been fun to watch this class grow, improve and mature through the years and to be a part of their success. To have all eight athletes continue their playing careers in college is amazing. These girls have put in countless hours pursuing their goals and their parents have supported them throughout the process.

“They have worked with various club coaches and our high school coaches through the years to get to this level. As a coach, I will miss having them in the gym and seeing them in school. They have been a major part of this program, and I thank them for all their time, effort and commitment to Grand Haven volleyball.”

The senior class, which includes Morgan Ross, Katie and Libby Cole, Sophia Newhouse, Claire Holman, Maddy Housenga, Kennedi Bernia and Cassidy Schumacher, helped the Buccaneers to a 48-10 record, a regional finals appearance and extended the program’s district title streak to 10 seasons.

“It feels like we’ve known each other forever,” said senior Sophia Newhouse after the team’s Senior Night celebration on Oct. 18, 2016. “There’s been a couple of girls that have transferred over from different schools, but the core group of us has been together since kindergarten.”

That chemistry and level of trust has served this particular group well, especially when each player buys into the idea of playing for each other and not individual goals.

“Our motivation has always been each other,” said senior Katie Cole after the team’s regional final loss to Rockford. “Every time we step on the court, we are competing hard and playing for each other.”

In their season-ending loss, the Buccaneers displayed their collective toughness better than any other point in their careers. The team fell behind by two sets early on, but unlike most teams, this group battled back to win the next two sets before falling short in the fifth set tiebreaker.

“Having a team that’s so strong mentally, coming from down two sets and forcing a fifth and being up in the fifth, it shows the toughness of this team,” senior Morgan Ross said of the comeback. “We’re just really sad we couldn’t get 15 points before they did. I couldn’t be prouder of this team and this group of seniors. We really wanted this win, but we went down swinging and that’s something no one can ever take away from us.”

LEAVING THEIR MARK

While the collective accomplishments are abundant, there are several individual feats that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

In her final season as a Buccaneer, Morgan Ross led the squad in kills with 455 and finished with 946 in her varsity career, ranking 10th all-time in program history.

Teammate Katie Cole led the team in assists with 1,371, bumping her career total up to 4,662 — a new program record. Cole and senior teammate Kennedi Bernia also tied for the team lead in aces in 2016 with 67 apiece.

Also adding a new high-water mark was Sophia Newhouse with 2,324 career digs (new school record) and 2,317 service receptions (second all-time).

SENIOR SEND OFF

For Maddy Housenga, her senior teammates have helped her break out of her shell and gain a confidence level she might not have otherwise attained.

“There were so many different personalities within the group,” she said. “It made it easy for someone who started out very shy and introverted like myself to find different strengths in my own personality and enabled me to break out of my shell.

“In the future, I hope people remember the uniqueness of the situation. The talent and friendship that came from our senior class does not happen everyday. You typically would see a couple athletes get recruited in a particular sport, but to have all eight seniors recruited and committed to play in college will not be forgotten.”

For sisters Katie and Libby Cole, the chance to play alongside each other has been nothing short of a dream come true.

“She’s my best friend,” Katie said about Libby after the team’s Senor Night event. “We do everything together, so when we are out there on the court together, it’s just second nature for us. We have been through everything together, so to finish my high school career with her and the rest of my senior teammates was really special and something I’ll never forget.”

Libby battled through adversity after tearing her ACL in her junior season, but bounced back to be a key contributor as a senior. She wrapped up her career with 66 aces and 358 digs.

“This just shows the caliber of our program,” she said of her class’s accomplishment. “I am also very excited for my teammates playing at the next level of volleyball. I really hope people remember us as a driven, focused group that helped raised the bar of an already successful program.”

For Claire Holman, the chance to be apart of something bigger than herself is a life lesson she doesn’t take for granted.

“The biggest thing I've learned from playing with my senior teammates would be being part of a team,” she said. “The importance of being part of a group is going to carry on with me through my entire life. We all bring different skills and gifts to the team, which allows us to be successful.”

Kennedi Bernia views her time with her volleyball teammates as the highlight of her high school experience.

“I love these girls more than anything, and they mean a lot to me,” she said. “The memories I made with them are the highlight of my high school career. I hope everyone will remember this group as being passionate about the sport we played and how hard we played when we were out on the court together.”

Cassidy Schumacher hopes the group will leave a lasting impression on the Grand Haven community and not just the volleyball program.

“It is amazing that we were all able to advance to the next level,” she said. “I knew we had the talent last year to all go and play in college, and I'm happy to see that everyone got what they worked so hard for.

“I want people to remember the 2017 graduating class as a class that gave back. Our senior class is very involved not only in school programs that benefit the student body, but also the community. I hope that the 2017 class has lead by example and has made an impact on all graduating classes in the years to come.”

Josh VanDyke is the sports editor at the Grand Haven Tribune. For more stories like this, as well as breaking news and live updates from around the Tri-Cities area, follow him on Twitter: @JoshVanDykeGHT.

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