It’s hard to believe last night’s match between Imlay City and North Branch was only a district semifinal.
The two state-ranked teams might as well have been playing in the Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek. Instead, they were playing in the MHSAA Division 2, District 60 Semifinal in the Almont High School gym.
Student sections poured out of the bleachers, friends and family packed the stands, and some fans even sat on the baselines. More than 400 tickets were sold.
North Branch entered the match ranked No. 2 in the state and was last year’s runner-up in the State Finals. Imlay City came in at No. 10, having lost to North Branch in three sets back in August, and again in mid-October, but that time, in four.
And last night, the Spartans pushed the Broncos to five sets, which was the first time North Branch had played a five-set match since Nov. 12, 2020.
“We haven’t done that before, so that’s good for us. We’ve only played three sets and occasionally four, but never five,” North Branch head coach Jim Fish said. “Hey, we’re moving on. That was anybody’s match.”
The Broncos ultimately won 20-25, 25-19, 25-21, 17-25, 15-8, but the Spartans didn’t walk out of that gym defeated. Instead, they received a standing ovation as they headed for the locker room.
“I’m so proud of them and they should be so proud of themselves. In the middle of the season we were losing to this team 25-9,” Imlay City head coach Rachel Van Dyk said. “The growth they’ve shown physically with the game of volleyball, and also just as a team and the way that they fight for points and the way that they stick together, it’s more than I could've ever asked for.”
North Branch went on a 4-0 run to start, foreshadowing what looked like would be another three-set match. But when Imlay City answered with a 4-0 run of its own, the atmosphere quickly changed.
“I didn’t care if we won or lost that match, I just wanted everyone to give their 100%,” Imlay City senior libero Natalie Stone said. “Even though we lost, there was nothing else we could’ve done. I’m just glad we played the way we did. I’m sad that the outcome is what it is, but I’m happy with how far we came as a team and I’m just very, very proud of us.”
Between the craftiness of freshman setter Makayla Bruman, the fierce blocks and attacks of freshman Emma Keeping, junior Lexa Forti, and seniors Alyssa Evans, Cassie Verellen, and Hope Schriber, and the full-coverage defense of Stone, the Spartans were finally firing on all cylinders at just the right time.
“We all felt amazing. It was one of the first times we we really thought we were going to beat them,” Keeping said. “The team unity was the best it’s been all season and it was just so heartfelt. We were all playing for each other and we just wanted to win so bad.”
After North Branch took a 2-1 advantage, Imlay City responded with a determined fourth set. The Broncos led 4-3 at one point, but from there the Spartans took control, leading by as much as 20-11.
But as effective as Imlay City was, so was North Branch, and that combined with deep postseason experience was just enough to give the Broncos the edge. They went on a 7-2 run to start the fifth and never looked back.
“This is way earlier in the season that we’re having those comebacks, but that experience last year really helped us this year to remember we still have a chance,” North Branch senior Natasha Bickel said. “Mr. Fish kept reminding us before the fifth set, ‘The score is 0-0 right now. No one is winning and we have everything we need to keep going.’”
Bickel led the North Branch offense with 14 kills, junior Kaela Chingwa added 12, juniors Clara Gyomory and Alana Deshetsky each piched in with nine, and freshman Aubree Deshetsky posted eight. Junior libero Hailey Green had 15 digs on the night and served 17-for-17, and junior setter Adrienne Greschaw had 43 assists and served 23-for-23.
The Broncos will play in Thursday’s District 60 Championship against Croswell-Lexington. The match is scheduled for 6 p.m. Buy tickets.
“I’ve got confidence in them. I think we played tight. I knew it was going to be hard. [Imlay City is] a good team,” Fish said. "I give all the credit to Imlay City. I thought they outplayed us tonight. I don’t know how long it was, it was long, but it never let down. It was intense the entire way. That’s hard to keep that energy level for that long, but we did.”
For in-game updates and other news, follow Calli on Twitter @ newberry_calli
To receive notifications about new stories from The Sports Report, subscribe for free.