By Steve Gunn
FRUITPORT – In 2010 and 2011, Nicole Bayle coached back-to-back Class B state championship volleyball teams at Fruitport.
Now those girls are playing for Bayle on the Fruitport volleyball team, and they’re two wins away from making their dreams come true.
The Trojans, 36-17-4, earned a spot in the Class B state Final Four by beating Cadillac in four sets on Tuesday in the state quarterfinals at Mason County Central High School.
Now they move on to the semifinals against No. 1 ranked Pontiac Notre Dame Prep on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek. The winner will play for a state championship on Saturday against the survivor of the Lake Odessa Lakewood-Livonia Ladywood semifinal.
“When these kids were in the fifth and sixth grade, they were major fans of those 2010 and 2011 teams,” Bayle said about her current players. “They came to all the games and were excited to watch them play. They’ve had the volleyball bug for a lot of years.”
Bayle has watched a lot of girls come up through the Fruitport system, reach varsity and maintain the proud tradition of Trojan volleyball.
She was an assistant coach from 2004 to 2008, and got a taste of what it takes to coach a state champion when the Trojans won it all in 2005.
She became head coach in the fall of 2008, when volleyball switched from a winter to fall schedule. Her teams won state titles in 2010 and 2011.
Her team hasn’t been back to the Final Four since then. But now the little girls who dreamed of being state champions are all grown up and on the court, and the Trojans are shooting for the top again.
“To be able to play in (the final four) again, I don’t have words for it,” Bayle said in the minutes following the quarterfinal win on Tuesday. “It’s awesome.”
Fruitport is led by three big hitters – juniors Kylie Oberlin (397 kills), Rachel Paulsen (379) and Jordyn Carlyle (349).
Trinity Busscher has served 67 aces, and Kailey Carmean has set up the Trojan attack with 1,446 assists.
Defensively, Oberlin has 57 blocks while Busscher has 711 digs.
For a lot of observers, Fruitport’s run through the state tournament is coming a year sooner than expected. The Trojans only have one senior on the squad, and all but three players are new to varsity this season.
They were good during the regular season, winning the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Tournament and battling for the championship in the challenging O-K Black Conference.
But they dropped their final regular-season match in a conference showdown with Jenison, and lost a chance to share the conference title with the Wildcats.
After that match, the Trojans hardly seemed like a tee am ready to challenge for a state title.
But Bayle thinks the loss to Jenison may have been a blessing in disguise.
“I knew we had a lot to bounce back from,” the coach said. “But having a little hiccup toward the end of the season can help kids get refocused. It was a good reminder for them about all the things we’d been saying to them about focus and intensity.”
The Trojans plowed through districts with a lot of intensity, defeating O-K Blue Conference co-champion Spring Lake in the first round, Orchard View in the semifinals and West Michigan Conference champion Whitehall in the district finals.
Then came regionals, when the Trojans beat O-K Blue co-champion Grand Rapids Catholic in the semifinals and Grant in the finals.
On Tuesday Fruitport looked shaky at times, falling behind early in every set, before rallying to beat Cadillac in four sets and cement their spot in the state Final Four.
The Trojans have only lost three of 21 sets in the tournament.
“The big thing is they needed to learn is that the type of play it takes, and making the commitment to improve, is not easy,” Bayle said. “It takes a lot of hard work. In the last three or four weeks those are things they have really started to embrace. That’s why you’ve seen such a huge change on the court.”
Standing in the Trojans way in the semifinals will be Pontiac Notre Dame Prep. The powerful Irish, who were ranked No. 1 in the final regular season Class B state poll, are 62-2-2 on the season and advanced to the semifinals with an easy three-set quarterfinal win over Corunna.
Notre Dame Prep features two powerful six-foot hitters, Natalie Risi and Madeline Chinn, who have been ranked among the top 25 players in Michigan.
“They’re a good team,” Bayle said. “They have really good offensive attackers and they’re solid at pretty much every position. For us that just means we have to be intentional about scoring and executing, and will have to work hard to fire on all cylinders and keep them off their game.
“If we can force them to struggle in serve-receive and get them out of their system, I think we have a good chance to upset a great volleyball team.”