Updated: Dec 6, 2022
When two state-ranked volleyball teams also happen to be neighboring conference rivals, it makes for an exciting competition.
And while the North Branch Broncos may have won over Imlay City in three sets (25-19, 25-11, 25-17), the intensity on the court told a different story.
They met in the Spartans’ gym last night tied atop the BWAC standings, each 3-0. North Branch hasn’t lost a single set since joining the league in 2018, and Imlay City finished right behind at 12-2 last season.
In the first set, the rivals exchanged points until the scoreboard read 7-5 in favor of the Broncos. From there, they extended their lead but never on exceptionally large runs as the Spartans refused to back down.
North Branch began the second set on a 6-0, however, proving why the team is ranked No. 1 in the state for Division 2. Its offense seemed to gain momentum and Imlay City couldn’t find an answer.
The Spartans recovered for the third set, managing to 4-0 run to narrow the deficit to 12-8. Their mascot soon took a lap around the court, waving the Imlay City flag with pride as the two packed and color-coordinated student sections cheered back and forth.
“It was just another BWAC match, but they’re our rivals so there’s always a little bit of fear, but I don’t think any of us played with [fear],” senior Natasha Bickel said. “When we walked in the gym, I could tell everyone calmed right down. We were just concerned about playing our game no matter what happened.”
For Bickel and the Broncos, their game plan didn’t involve any kind of slowing down. They rallied back to a 22-12 lead before keeping their undefeated streak alive.
“I thought we played pretty well, but we can play a lot better though. We’re going to keep trying to get better and we will. This is only August. We’ve got a lot of growth to make as a team,” head coach Jim Fish said. “That first set was close for a while, and then I thought we kind of controlled the match after that…We needed to just keep the foot on the pedal.”
Keeping the Broncos in control was junior libero Hailey Green, who Fish said played the best game he’s ever seen her play last night. Between her constant communication and her agile ability to be anywhere and everywhere on the court, she led her team with 14 digs and 10 serve receptions – and a performance like that certainly doesn’t come without practice.
“I’ve trained in practice and club, and outside of club Mr. Fish has trained me to just work on some stuff that I was struggling with in club,” Green said. “And then before every practice we do our serve-receive as a team for 45 minutes to an hour to just make sure we’re getting our passes so we can use our hitters. We have an amazing hitting team and we need to make sure that we’re using them.”
Hitters like Bickel and juniors Clara Gyomory and Alana Deshetsky who combined for 20 kills on the night, led by Bickel with nine.
“I’ve been told by multiple people that I’m not a 6-foot-2 middle, I’m 5-10, maybe, so I’m not flashy, but I feel like I’m the one pushing from behind like, ‘OK let’s go, you’ve got this,” Bickel said, “to encourage some of our all-state players on the team, making sure they have the right mindset all the time because I know that’s where it all starts."
As for Imlay City, head coach Rachel Van Dyk said she’s happy with the growth she’s seen from her team since taking the helm of the program just last August.
“I got lucky to have some really great kids and great athletes right off the bat. They make coaching so fun and they're really receptive to learning. [Assistant coach] Larissa [Van Dyk] and I are really proud of their growth,” Van Dyk said. “We still reminisce with the kids who are returners about how much growth we've seen individually and also just as a unit.”
And a key to the Spartans’ growth has been the team’s depth, which has propelled them to becoming ranked honorable mention by the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association for Division 2.
“I feel like our practices have been really competitive which has been helpful for us getting better and used to competing against good teams,” Van Dyk said. “It’s important to have a full roster full of talented kids and I feel like we have that.”
Their depth showed on the court as three different players led the way offensively: sophomore Chloe Bruman and freshman Emma Keeping each recorded five kills and junior Lexa Forti added four. Keeping also had eight assists and two blocks. Senior libero Natalie Stone led the defense with 17 digs while Forti and freshman Makayla Bruman each had 10 on the night.
The Broncos and Spartans will meet up once more before the district tournament begins, but before then, Imlay City will take on Algonac on Sept. 8 while North Branch hosts Armada.
BWAC STANDINGS (as of Sept. 1)
No. 1 – North Branch (4-0)
No. 2t – Imlay City (3-1)
No. 2t – Cros-Lex (3-1)
No. 4 – Almont (2-2)
No. 5t – Algonac (1-3)
No. 5t – Armada (1-3)
No. 5t – Richmond (1-3)
No. 5t – Yale (1-3)