By Andrew Johnson
NORTON SHORES – Any team at any school can have a great group of athletes occasionally go through, and post a great season here and there.
Last year the Warriors rolled all the way to the Division 3 state quarterfinals before being eliminated by Schoolcraft. It was the farthest the team had ever advanced in the state tournament.
Eight seniors graduated from that squad, so a big drop-off might have been expected that season – but it didn’t happen.
Instead WMC posted a 24-11 regular season record this fall, won its third straight Lakes 8 Conference championship, and has won eight of its last nine matches headed into this week’s Division 3 district tournament at Kent City High School.
The Warriors will begin their defense of the district title on Wednesday when they will play either Ravenna or Saugatuck in the semifinals.
“It’s the best time to be playing your best,” said WMC Coach Trent Smillie, whose squad is ranked sixth in the state in Division 3. “We think we’re hitting our stride and playing our best volleyball, but we’re hoping to take it one match at a time.
“We’re trying to build a tradition at Western Michigan Christian. It’s an expectation of our players to advance in the postseason, and we want that to be a thing. It’s great to hear our kids talk about some of the top teams in Division 3 and not be scared.”
Two of the four returning players from last year’s outstanding squad are seniors Alisha Leffring and Taylor Folkema, who have been driving forces for the Warriors all season.
Both had some injury issues over the course of the season, and there were times when the Warriors were playing without one or the other. But they are both healthy and ready for the postseason, which makes WMC a dangerous opponent for any team.
“Alisha and Taylor are two of the top players in the county,” said Coach Smillie, who is in his sixth year with the team. “I’d say Alisha could play every position and be the best in the county except maybe setter. Taylor is an amazing athlete, and we’re not nearly the same team with only one of them.”
Many teams have top players who specialize in different aspects of volleyball, but Leffring and Folkema can both do it all, as their season stats illustrate.
Folkema has 210 kills and has served 29 aces on offense, and 215 digs and 33 blocks defensively.
The same is true for Leffring, who has totaled 286 kills, 40 aces, 262 digs and 76 blocks.
Just as important as their physical skills are their leadership qualities. Both girls know how to pull it together on the court when things get tough, which will be a very valuable asset under the pressure of the state tournament.
“When we get too much pressure, she’ll say ‘down,'” said Leffring about Folkema. “It lets me reset my mind and think about how we can better play and help our teammates.”
“It’s actually very special,” Folkema said. “We’re best friends and sometimes we get frustrated in the game. We made it our goal that if we ever lose composure, she’d say the word ‘down’ and we need to stop what we’re doing and take a chill pill.”
The Warriors will face some pressure this week, because it’s very likely they will meet North Muskegon, the state’s fourth-ranked Division 3 team, in the district finals on Thursday.
Smillie understands that, and knows the road will get even more difficult beyond districts, if the Warriors survive.
He says his team is up for every challenge, and he’s not shy about talking about the ultimate goal, for this year’s team and presumably every WMC team going forward, since he has built a program that is starting to perform well on a consistent basis.
“On the ceiling of our gym we have green banners for boys and white banners for girls,” the coach said. “Those represent state champions and runners-up. We have one white banner, and it’s a soccer runner-up. We’d love to put another one on the ceiling, and we’re going to go out there swinging.”