BY WENDI REARDON PRICE
Clarkston News Sports Writer
The Clarkston Varsity Volleyball team finished in the Final Four in the MHSAA Division 1 Volleyball State Championship last Friday in Battle Creek, losing the semifinal game to Birmingham Marian, 3-2.
“We played great,” said Kelly Pinner, head coach. “I think offensively, defensively, especially defensively, that might be the best match we put together all season long. You never like to lose, and we wanted a chance at the state title. But I don’t know if I could have asked for any more out of the team.”
Both teams went into the fifth set with two wins under their belt as Clarkston won the first set, 25-22, and the third game, 25-11.
“We really needed to finish it in the fourth,” said Pinner. “We had all that momentum in the third and it just didn’t carry over in the fourth. They got a start out on us. We had to keep clawing back and we just couldn’t finish.”
Marian opened the fifth set with three points and the Wolves closed in with kills from Paige Giehtbrock and Claire Nowicki before tying the score 4-4.
Marian pulled into the lead and Clarkston kept within a few points before the Mustangs won the set, 15-11.
Nowicki had 22 kills and 18 digs. Giehtbrock had 13 kills and 18 digs. Summer Jidas had 23 digs and Kiley Gallagher had 11 digs. Elizabeth Adams had eight kills. Emery Kuebler had 19 assists and nine digs. Sidney Hasenfratz had nine kills and seven digs.
The Wolves defeated Grand Blanc in the quarterfinals on January 12, 3-1.
“It’s awesome,” Nowicki said after the win and the Wolves returning back to the Final Four for the first time since 2011. “
The Bobcats took the first game, 25-22. Clarkston opened with the lead and was up 19-13 before Grand Blanc went on a 8-point run.
“Grand Blanc had great defense all night,” said Pinner. “I think that got us back on our heels a little bit. I think we thought we were just going to go out there and out power them. They just kept getting scrappy and it took us a while to find our groove, too.”
“We don’t know what happened but I am glad we picked it up,” Nowicki said. “Out of 13 points, we gave them ten. We really had to look at stats and say this is what we are doing wrong. We need to fix it.”
The Wolves took the next set with a 27-25 win. The score was close from the beginning and Clarkston always held onto the lead. Nowicki closed it with her serve as the Bobcats return went low and under the net.
Grand Blanc took the lead in the third set going 6-1. Serves from Nowicki and Hasenfratz helped close the gap. Soon the score was tied at 12 points. Hits from Giehtbrock and Nowicki put the Wolves up 18-14. The Wolves held onto the lead and closed the set with a 25-20 win.
Clarkston opened the fourth set with a 5-0 lead and finished it with a 25-14 win.
“It was just momentum,” Nowicki said. “We just kept pushing each other. We told each other be loud, keep cheering each other on.”
“We play a five hitter system and all five of them were confident getting that set,” said Pinner. “If somebody is struggling we are going to find someone else who isn’t – that definitely is a strength of ours.”
Nowicki had 14 kills for the night.
“She’s going to be someone if we are looking for someone to end a rally for us,” said Pinner. “The ball is going to go into her hands if it can.”
Hasenfratz had 13 kills and four blocks and Adams had ten kills and five blocks.
The Wolves finished the season 28-9 in a year the team wouldn’t forget with the ups and downs during the COVID pandemic.
“We started in June at Clintonwood Park in the sand,” said Pinner, about when they were allowed to start fall workouts. “Then, we realized the sand really wasn’t the best. It didn’t transfer to what we were doing on the hard floor. We got some parents to set up some grass courts for us then now you are dealing with all kinds of stuff. Those will be memories those kids have forever. We really didn’t get into the gym until September. I just remember that first day we were in the junior high – the girls energy and excitement being inside and having a chance to have a season. It was just amazing.”
She added all season long the girls were just grateful they had an opportunity to play.
“We were playing the best we could possibly play in November. Then, it all halted,” Pinner said, adding the team dealt with three postponements to finish the playoffs. “The seniors did a good job of keeping everyone positive and keeping everyone’s heads in it.”
“It’s been a journey,” Nowicki said. “We pushed so hard. Our season keeps getting extended, extended, extended. We just want to finish it and get to Battle Creek. We did Zoom calls to stay close. We kept trying to keep each other accountable, stay away from parties, keep yourself in a bubble. As a team we really kept each other accountable.”
The Wolves graduate four seniors – Hasenfratz, Nowicki, Shay Bordine and Madison McGraw.
“The whole team, but especially the seniors led the team, learning how to be resilient, learning how to persevere, not hang your head,” said Pinner. “It was out of our control that’s what I kept telling them. We can’t control what is happening to us. We have to control how we react to what is happening to us. The seniors did a great job of doing that instead of hanging their heads and whining or pouting about it. They just kept telling everyone we are going to do this eventually.”
She added getting to Battle Creek and the energy the Wolves had in playoffs will help motivate the lower classmen.
“After I talked to the seniors, I told the others I hope this gives you a little bit of hunger to get back here next year,” Pinner said. “It will definitely give them a drive.”