Communication, trust and leadership are pillars of success.
Those three principles are also paramount in any athletic endeavor, and the Fruitport volleyball team was an excellent example of that last fall.
With a strong core of junior playmakers and a single senior starter, the Trojans had plenty of talent to be special but not much chemistry to bring it all together.
"The thing that sticks out to me about last year's team is that they all really grew up over the course of the season," said Fruitport head coach Nicole Bayle when reflecting on the season. "They learned how to be great players, but more importantly, they learned how to be great teammates.
"I've always found that the best teams learn how to play together and compliment each other. Camp last July was a struggle, but they came so far over the course of the season. They improved in their skills and learned how to trust each other."
Bayle also bought every player on the team a book to emphasize the importance of being on the same page.
"We all read the book ‘The Energy Bus' by Jon Gordon," she added. "That really opened their minds to just how important it is to have every single member of the team playing for the same goals. It didn't happen right away, but once the playoffs started, we were all riding the same bus and really playing together for the same goals and the same purpose."
Fruitport saw steady improvements throughout their lineup as the season progressed, making the Trojans a difficult team to gameplan for or defeat.
"It wasn't just one person that improved and made us better, it was everybody getting better each time we stepped out on the court," Bayle added. "Jordyn (Carlyle) switched positions at the start of the season and became a great middle for us. Kailey (Carmean) really improved setting-wise and learned how to take charge in the huddle. Rachel (Paulsen) came into her own on the outside.
"Trinity (Busscher) really improved, too. She learned the game of volleyball and got more confident in herself and her role on the team. By the time we reached the semifinals, she was a completely different player than she was in August."
ROAD TO THE SEMIFINALS
On the final weekend of the regular season, the Fruitport volleyball team appeared to reach a breaking point. An up-and-down regular season saw the Trojans beat a bevy of top-flight teams on their schedule, but also fall victim to some unsatisfying upsets both in and out of conference play.
With a shot at a conference title on the line in their final home match of the regular season, Fruitport fell to Jenison in straight sets. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the Trojans quickly jumped on a bus to play a weekend tournament at Mount Morris High School. With districts starting that Monday, the decision to play in a road tournament was heavy on their coach's mind.
"At the time, I really thought, ‘Wow, Nicole. This might be a bad decision,'” said Bayle in retrospect. "Sometimes you schedule things and don't realize how close those games were packed together. That trip really helped us though, because it made us forget about the conference stuff and just hit the reset button and gel as a team. We got a chance to play against some different teams and compete against different styles, and we got some of our confidence back."
Fruitport jumped into its playoff season with an emotional rivalry game against Spring Lake on its home court.
The Trojans used excellent serving, pinpoint ball placement and collective contributions from almost everyone on the roster to record wins of 25-22, 25-23 and 25-19 over the Lakers in three sets.
Kylie Oberlin recorded 15 kills and five digs to lead the Trojans, while Carlyle added 14 kills and Morgan Fialek added six kills. Paulsen added three aces, seven kills and 26 digs; Busscher had three aces and 19 digs; and Carmean had 44 assists and 16 digs.
In the district semifinals, the Trojans cruised past an overmatched Orchard View squad with relative easy by scores of 25-12, 25-7 and 25-8.
In the district finals on their home court, Fruitport captured a Class B district championship for the second straight season, defeating Whitehall 25-10, 23-25, 25-15 and 25-10.
The combination of Oberlin, Paulsen and Carlyle proved to be too much for the Vikings, as Oberlin recorded 15 kills, nine digs and four blocked shots; Paulsen added 18 kills and six digs; and Carlyle added 11 kills.
Carmean helped quarterback the Trojans' gameplan with a team-high 49 assists, while senior Chloe Kern chipped in with three service aces and seven digs. and Busscher had a team-high 18 digs.
Fruitport advanced to play Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the Class B regional semifinals the following week, and had to battle through some emotional twists and turns to dispatch the Cougars in four sets, 25-20, 25-18, 26-28 and 25-14.
At the end of the third set, it appeared that the Trojans had recorded the game-winning kill to send Fruitport to the Class B regional finals. In fact, the entire team was on the court celebrating when the officials reversed the call on the court, giving Grand Rapids Catholic Central new life.
The Cougars went on to take the third set, 28-26, but that would be the only celebrating they would do the rest of the night.
The Trojans rebounded from the emotional chaos to dominate the fourth set, 25-14, and advance to face Grant for a regional championship.
"It's probably good for us to lose a set like that," said Bayle. "If we had advanced to the regional finals without losing a set or having any tight matches along the way, we probably wouldn't know how to handle that situation when it came up in the next round.
"Three games is always the goal, but once you get into the playoffs, rolling through all your matches doesn't really help you. I'd rather have some experience in a tight situation like that. I think it's good for these kids to know that they can play nervous and overcome a pressure situation."
Despite their coach's warnings, the Trojans had no drama in the regional championship match against Grant, as they overpowered the Tigers with outside hitting, smart play around the net and tremendous defense to sweep in straight sets, 25-19, 25-15 and 25-8.
In the championship match, Oberlin recorded 13 kills and three blocked shots to lead the Trojans on the stat sheet, while Paulsen recorded 10 kills and five digs; and Carmean had a team-high 36 assists, eight digs and three service aces.
It was the Class B quarterfinals against Cadillac that finally brought the Trojans a little bit of adversity, as the team fell behind virtually in every set before turning the tide and capturing the match.
When the dust settled, the Fruitport faithful packed the gym at Mason County Central and cheered on the Trojan volleyball program, as they advanced past the Cougars, 25-22, 25-22, 19-25 and 25-16.
"We were down in every set. For me, it was excellent to see them rage back like that and stay consistent and know they were still capable of winning this match," said Bayle. "It definitely wasn't our best performance, but sometimes you have to just find a way to win an ugly game. I think we showed a lot of poise and character to not lose our cool and let the situation get the best of us."
The Trojans' magical run came to a close in the Class B semifinals at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek on Nov. 20.
Top-ranked Pontiac Notre Dame Prep used sledgehammer-like hitting, precision serves and overall crisp execution to dispatch Fruitport in three sets by scores of 25-15, 25-9 and 25-15.
The Irish went on to defeat Lake Odessa Lakewood in the Class B state title game, 25-16, 25-17 and 28-26.
The Trojans finished the 2017 season with a 36-18-4 record.
"We knew coming into that match that we were going to be major, major underdogs. We knew they had a great team that has been overpowering," Bayle added. "That's the best team we've played all year, by far. Betty (Wroubel) does a great job with them and she teaches her kids that no opponent is below them, and they are always playing their A-game for every single match.
"As a coach, you always want your team to play their hardest and if they get beat by a more talented team than you can hold your head high and know you gave it your best shot. Notre Dame Prep turned out to be the best team in the state last year and they were just a little better than us."
With the majority of the team coming back this fall, Bayle is confident the hunger within the program will push the returning Trojans to new heights.
"There's a lot of pressure when you put on that Fruitport volleyball jersey," said Bayle of the program's tradition. "We've had some success before and I think this particular group of girls now understands what it takes to get to the semifinals and how good the competition is once you get there. As a coach, you can preach all day and night about hard work and determination, but now that they've tasted that success, I know they understand that it isn't going to be given to them.
"They know if they want to experience that again, they have to put in the work this summer and not take any match or tournament off. I think the biggest thing we have to our advantage this coming season is that these girls understand how important communication and trust is. Because they already have that chemistry, I feel pretty confident as their coach that we'll be working together from start to finish."