Nobody tell the Fruitport volleyball team that.
In Thursday’s Class B regional championship match, the Trojans used overpowering outside hitting, smart play around the net and tremendous defense to sweep Grant in straight sets, 25-19, 25-15 and 25-8.
Fruitport advances to play Cadillac in Tuesday’s state quarterfinals at Mason County Central High School at 7 p.m.
“We talked a lot heading into regionals about not only being physically ready to play, but to be mentally ready to play,” said Fruitport head coach Nicole Bayle. “That’s been this team’s struggle at times this season, and that’s been a hump they’ve had to get over throughout the course of the season.
“For them to come out here tonight on a big stage, in front of a lot of people, and play that well and keep a good head on their shoulders was great to see. They’ve really grown a lot these past two weeks, and they don’t seem to get phased by anything that happens out there.”
In Set 1, Fruitport and Grant exchanged points with neither team finding an advantage. Once the scoreboard reached double digits, however, the Trojans turned on the kill switch and dominated play.
After holding a narrow 11-8 advantage, Fruitport outscored Grant 13-6 to pull within a point of recording an opening round win. The Tigers would answer with a 5-0 run to pull within 24-19, but the Trojans calmly regrouped and recorded the deciding score moments later for a 25-19 win.
“I’ve learned not to harp on them too much until it gets to that 10-point range,” Bayle said. “It takes them a few points to get settled in and ready to play, and they have to make adjustments to what the other team is doing, too. They really gained confidence as each set went on, and that happened in both of the first two sets.
“We would go back-and-forth with them early on, and then we would go on a run midway through the set to take control.”
That was the case again in Set 2, as the Trojans finished the round on a 10-2 run after holding a narrow 15-13 lead, for a 25-15 win.
With the team just one set away from a regional title, Fruitport left no doubt in Set 3. The Trojans jumped out to leads of 5-1 and 15-5, before wrapping up the regional championship with an impressive 25-8 win.
“We just continued to work hard each set,” said Fruitport’s lone senior player, Chloe Kern. “It really came down to us just playing well as a team. We didn’t freak out at all, we just held our composure from start to finish.”
In her final varsity season, Kern couldn’t think of a better group to be sharing the victory with.
“I’m so glad that I’m able to do this with this group of girls and these coaches,” she said. “It’s awesome and it’s a highlight of my career here.”
Kylie Oberlin recorded 13 kills and three blocked shots to lead the Trojans on the stat sheet; while Rachel Paulsen recorded 10 kills and five digs; and Kailey Carmean had a team-high 36 assists, eight digs nand three service aces.
Jordyn Carlyle added eight kills, Trinity Busscher had 16 digs, and Chloe Kern had two service aces and six digs.
“She’s been huge for us,” Bayle said of Paulsen’s performance. “She’s not only gained confidence in herself, but her teammates and the coaching staff have gained a lot of confidence in her, too. We always have conversations between points because she’s usually in that back row corner by me when I’m coaching. I just always try to remind her that she’s doing a great job and reassure her out there.
“Rachel didn’t play varsity last year, and she had to battle to get to varsity this year. She’s improving rapidly, and she’s at the point now where when she gets to the net, she had six or seven different shots she can use to confuse the defense.”
A big factor for Fruitport’s turnaround this season is due to their collective improvement from the service line.
“Our serving has gotten so much better since the start of the year,” Bayle added. “There was one three-set match earlier in the season where we missed 16 serves as a team. To see this overcome that and improve so much in that area is great.”
With only one senior on the roster and a large group of juniors gaining more and more playoff experience, Bayle is excited to see what the future holds for Fruitport volleyball.
“It’s a dream situation, because you usually only get a year or two with a kid at the varsity level, but I knew this group of juniors would be a talented bunch even when they were younger,” she continued. “They’ve learned a lot since they were freshmen, and now they are learning what it takes to be successful at the varsity level.
“They understand that they have to put in the extra effort, make the hustle plays that swing momentum in matches and how much that impacts the game.”
As the team prepares to take on Cadillac (31-18-3) on Tuesday, Bayle views her squad as just as dangerous as any left in the bracket.
“When a team still has room to grow and is advancing in the tournament, it’s encouraging as a coach,” she said. “I think we can give some teams a run for their money the rest of the way, and I don’t think we’re that sleeper, honorable mention team anymore.
“We’re just becoming more diverse. Rachel and Morgan (Fialek) are getting more aggressive on the outside, and our setter (Trinity Busscher) is getting better and better at setting an outside ball. That’s been her vice this year, but she’s getting more consistent there and that’s giving her more confidence as a player. That also helps our middles be more successful, too.
“I’m just super excited to have that regional title trophy again. It’s been awhile.”