The last time the ninth-ranked Tigers (34-8-2) were this deep in the post-season tournament was 2017, when they were making their second consecutive trip to the quarters.
Shelby earned another shot at getting to the Final Four by knocking off Grand Rapids North Pointe Christian, 3-1, in the regional final last week. That avenged a loss to the Mustangs in last year’s regional semifinal.
Fourth-ranked Kalamazoo Christian edged No. 5 Watervliet in four sets to win its regional title in the third meeting of the two teams, who split a pair of games in a tournament during the regular season.
“They’re big, and they’re athletic … they’re everything you don’t want to come across in a tournament,” said Shelby coach Tom Weirich. “We were competitive with them. It was 23-25 and 15-25 in a best two out of three. We’re better than we were back then, obviously, and I’m sure they are, too. It’ll be a good match-up, for sure. We’re not going to be afraid of them.
“We know they are going to have size, and we don’t have that as much as some of the teams,” Weirich said. “But, we create some matchup issues with our outside hitters. We’re going to watch some game film of them and see what we can come up with.”
Shelby’s major motivation this season has been trying to keep their opponents out of system and keep the ball being set from beyond their 10-foot line. The Tigers also look to create free-ball opportunities.
“We attack,” Weirich said. “That’s our approach to volleyball this year. We’re going after them, and we’re going to go down swinging.”
Sophomore outside hitter, 6-foot-1 Navea Gauthier, is a big reason why the Tigers have been so successful. Gauthier turns everything into offense for the Tigers, whether it’s a good pass or a good set, she’s going to go up and attack it.
If the Tigers can create a little bit of havoc on the other side, take the other team’s setter out of the equation, and things of that nature, make the opponent uncomfortable, they know they have a good chance of winning the battles.
But, it’s always a chess match, with the other team trying to counteract those plans.
“I feel that we’re in a quarterfinal game, so we’re not going to get away with much,” Weirich said. “We’re at that point in the season now that we’re not going to get any freebies out of anybody. So, if we don’t give up any freebies, and they don’t give up any freebies, it’s going to come down to a couple of plays somewhere along the way that are going to make the difference.”
Everything goes through sophomore outside hitter Gauthier, who started last year as a freshman and came into this year the Tigers’ most improved player.
Her mom, Becky, was the junior varsity coach for 15 years, but stepped down from that position to assist Weirich on the varsity when her daughter started her freshman year. It was clear she would immediately join the varsity.
Navea put in a lot of work in the off-season, including working with a personal trainer. She entered the season in excellent condition.
“It’s incredible the work ethic that kid has,” Weirich said. “And if you watch her demeanor on the floor, she’ll make mistakes, get blocked out whatever, but she doesn’t let anything rattle her. She never flinches out there. I think that’s the difference between last year and this year. As a freshman, she was trying to figure out how to fit in, and how to compose herself.
“This year, it’s ‘game on’ for her.”
Gauthier has been a calming presence on the court, and while it would be easy for the other players to resent her being the focal point of the team’s attack, it hasn’t been that way.
“Everyone has embraced the path that we’ve taken, and understands the significance of her ability,” Weirich said. “We’re going to ride it as far as it’ll go. She does things outside of the game. It makes everybody better, and more enjoyable, too. I could go on for another hour about her. But, she’s the real deal.”
Audrey Horton has answered all the questions about how she would contribute to the Tigers’ attack coming in as a sophomore.
But she’s played club volleyball since the seventh grade and everything has finally come together for her this year.
“She knew she wasn’t going to be the biggest, strongest kid on the team,” Weirich said. “But she knew we were going to get the ball to Navea, even at that age, and she put herself in position to be a key contributor on the court as a sophomore. We wondered at the beginning of her freshman year if she was ever going to get a serve in play and now she’s serving game winners for us. She’s closed out a lot of games for us this year just with her serves.”
Morgan Weirich, the coach’s daughter, is the Tigers senior leader and a four-year starting libero. Her talent was never a question. She was playing on the fifth grade team at Shelby as a third grader and played on club teams with Gauthier.
She recorded her 2,000th career dig earlier this season, and will depart with numbers that will be difficult to match.
Weirich is in his 18th season as the Tigers’ varsity coach, following one season coaching the freshman team after landing a teaching position in the industrial tech department, wood shop and drafting classes, as well as gym classes.
The coach is taking a philosophical approach to the quarterfinal match against Kalamazoo Christian.
“We’re just going to be who we are and play our style of volleyball,” said Weirich. “If that’s good enough, we’ll beat them. If it’s not, we’ll tip our hat because I feel like we’re playing some pretty solid ball right now ourselves.”