The Grand Haven volleyball team has one of the richest histories of any local program. After claiming their 11th straight district title last week, the Bucs have put to rest any fear they couldn’t stack up to their esteemed predecessors. A berth to the regional round historically seems like a given for the Bucs, but from January through their win over Mona Shores last week, things didn’t look promising.
After graduating eight seniors into the ranks of college volleyball programs around the country, Grand Haven had a handful of returning pieces to look to for guidance as a fresh crop of players joined the starting lineup. The problem? Their 6-foot-3 middle hitter was on crutches.
Avolyn Lepo finished the 2016 campaign in the starting lineup as the Bucs fell to Rockford in the regional finals in five dramatic sets. In saying goodbye to one of the highest-touted classes in the program’s history, the middle hitter knew a leadership role was on the horizon and hit the offseason ready to continue building her game.
“She is someone who can completely change the game at the nets,” Grand Haven head coach Aaron Smaka said. “Early in the 2016 season, she was splitting time in the middle. Early in September, she established herself as a major force. In the regional final against Rockford, she finished second in kills and certainly established herself as a dominant middle. The scary thing about her is she isn’t even close to her ceiling.
“Her natural ability and height and the way she gets up into her blocking is pretty impressive. She is very dynamic.”
January marks the beginning of the club volleyball season, where players go to hone their skills, build their bodies and catch the eyes of college scouts. Lepo was determined to close in on that high ceiling, in order to lead an impending young roster of Bucs in 2017.
During warm-up for her first game in the first tournament of the year, the middle hitter broke out for a flair and launched toward the net for a routine hit.
“I landed wrong and hit the pole, and my knee twisted around,” she said. “It didn’t hurt at the time, but it felt disgusting, I wanted to throw up. I could tell something was wrong.”
A week later the diagnosis was in, a fully torn ACL tendon and partially torn meniscus, both requiring surgery.
“I was scared,” Lepo said of the diagnosis. “People around me had torn their ACL, but I didn’t know how it would affect me personally. I was just nervous what would happen, if I would ever be able to get back to where I was at the end of last year, if I would be back at all, I just had a lot of questions.”
A total reconstruction of her ACL tendon and a “cleanup” of her meniscus began the recovery process, and the long road through physical therapy. With the season less than six months away, all the expectations she had for her junior season were tossed out the window.
“I was hoping to be a leader on the court,” she said of the then impending season. “I was excited to start over with a new team. It was amazing having all eight of those seniors college bound; it was a really successful and adult team. But, it was also exciting to think about starting over with a new, young and talented team and trying to continue the legacy with them.”
Rehab started from square one, hobbling around on crutches for two months, allowing the tendons to heal. Meanwhile, the powerful legs of the one of the area’s most dominating net presences wasted away without the demanding workouts of the club season.
“Club season is all about hard practices and long tournaments, so you can get ready for the high school season,” she said. “It is also when a lot of college recruiting goes on. That was really hard going down right in the beginning of that. I missed out on a lot of opportunities that I would have had if I were healthy.
“I was on crutches, so my muscle was super atrophied, making it even harder to come back from. Besides that, it was pretty standard. Physical therapy three times a week all spring and summer all the way until tryouts.
“In the beginning I kept trying to do things, and progress was slow. It was a lot of one step forward and two steps back. It was really frustrating.”
With a matter of months before the beginning of the season, it was unlikely Lepo would make it back for its entirety, but she knew she had to make it back for the postseason.
“I wanted to be back for as much of the season as possible,” she said. “As a program, we have a legacy of going far in the playoffs. This team is younger, but they definitely know the legacy and want to continue that. There have been lots of winning teams, and I just wanted to be a part of that as much as I could.”
By the time tryouts rolled around, Lepo was barely allowed on the hardwood, and had to watch the team assemble without her presence in the middle. Determined to make a difference as the program entered one of their most mystifying seasons yet, Lepo took on whatever role she could to help the young squad.
“At that point, I was only partially playing, so I took stats,” she said. “I couldn’t have a role on the court, so I had a different role off the court doing whatever I could.”
As the season progressed, the Bucs struggled to find their synergy. Constant lineup changes, some controversial roster moves and frequently altered offensive schemes kept even the experienced players from finding their footing. At times, the Bucs looked like world-beaters, at other times they looked out of touch and disoriented running their offense.
“It is hard not being a part of it on the court,” Lepo said. “There are always ways for me to help, even just cheering and keeping energy up, but it is hard.”
Lepo continued her therapy throughout the season, sticking to a tightly monitored jump and swing count in practice. Finally, with just one home game left on the schedule, good news came from doc. Lepo was cleared to play a full match against Rockford on Sept. 28.
“That was really fun to come back against Rockford, because of how our season ended last year,” Lepo said. “The first 10 points I was so nervous, lots of jitterbugs, but after being in it for a while, it felt just back to normal and that was really cool.”
The junior’s presence in the middle of the floor was felt immediately, as she led the team with three blocks. The Bucs fell to Rockford in four sets, but were beginning to find their footing with personnel rounding into form.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows after Lepo’s return, however. Already irritating lineup challenges were exacerbated by another powerful piece being thrown into rotation. Meanwhile, that piece needed some time to get her mojo back.
“In the beginning the knee was iffy, I was icing it every night,” Lepo said. “Even now, I’m not back to where I was last year, but getting better all the time.
“Now that I’m back on the court, it is a lot easier to see why we were struggling and see the things that were going on. It was good to be a part of it, but we still had work to do.”
As the regular season expired, the Bucs finished with a 31-20 record, hardly living up to their 48-10 record from 2016 and their legacy as a perennial regional-round contender.
That all changed when the postseason began. Through their first three games, Grand Haven hasn’t given up a single set, sweeping Reeths-Puffer in the opener, Muskegon in the district semifinals and Mona Shores for their 11th straight district championship, in what head coach Aaron Smaka described as the best game the team had played all year.
“We certainly had our ups and downs this season, this is the best we have played on a consistent basis all year,” he said after the game. “We knew having Avolyn back and having our middles would be a huge factor. Boeve played absolutely great, like one of the best in the state. Our setters did a nice job distributing the ball, Ashlyn and Sam both did a great job out there and on top of all that we had so many kids just making plays.
“We sure are glad it is November, because October wasn’t good to us. We always want to be playing at this level in November, and we haven’t been. In just this last month this team has begun to find their identity, they seem to be coming together at the perfect time.”
With the district tournament taken care of, the Bucs turn their attention to the regional tournament, where they face No. 3-ranked Grand Rapids Christian in the opening round, and Lepo certainly has the right attitude.
“I’m super excited,” Lepo said. “Districts was not easy, but we definitely felt up to that level. Christian will be a challenge for us, which is exciting. It is a different team this year, but we have the same drive to win and the components that make it possible.”
“They are good,” Smaka said of the Eagles. “Their offense runs very quick, our blockers need to be ready and our middles have got to close if we want to stand a chance.
“They play very well out of system, but are a very good passing team and don’t make a lot of mistakes. If we can pass well and serve them well then I think we have a lot of weapons and a lot of size all over the court where we can make the game interesting. We all have to be in our spots and do our job.
“Avolyn will be a huge factor, as will Lauren Jonker and Kelly Klouw on the right, pretty much everyone has to do their job. They are ready, they are not scared. It is a unique roll for us, coming in as underdogs. No one really expects us to do anything in this regional. We have nothing to lose.”
First serve is set for 5 p.m. at Jenison High School today, as Lepo and the Bucs look to continue an inspiring individual comeback and a tremendous resurgence for a team everyone wanted to count out.