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Lady Dragons make volleyball history in Battle Creek



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Lake Orion’s volleyball team with its 2011 state runner-up trophy. Photo by J. St. Henry (click for larger version)
November 23, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry

Review Editor

Lake Orion rode a wave of green-and-white momentum last week to the championship match of the 2011 state volleyball tournament, capping the high school program's best season ever.

The Lady Dragons' gutsy 3-2 comeback over Macomb Dakota in the quarter-finals last Tuesday landed them a spot in the Final Four in Battle Creek. Two days later, they enjoyed sweet revenge over OAA Red Division rival Clarkston in the state semi-finals, overpowering the Wolves 3-1. Their title dreams ended on Saturday, however, with a 3-0 loss to the Rockford Rams in the Class A final.

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The team finished with a 54-13-3 record for the season, including a second-place finish in league play before making its magical playoff run. Lake Orion was the first team from the Oakland Activities Association to ever reach the title match.

"Losing in the final was tough on the girls Saturday, but I think it's now sinking in what they accomplished this year," said sixth-year coach Bob Howey. "I think this team has set the bar high for our program. It lets girls know that playing in the state volleyball championship can be more than just a dream.

"This group of seniors is hardest working and most dedicated class of girls I've ever coached. From the time these girls were freshmen, I knew I had something special," he added.

Senior Taylor Hargraves said it best, "When you play Lake Orion, you're taking on a family."

After losing the league title to the Wolves in October during the final league match, Howey admitted he was not sure if the team had peaked too early during a grueling regular season featuring a number of the best teams in the state.

The Lady Dragons proved their coach wrong, however, by regrouping and focusing on the state playoffs. They quickly disposed of Oxford, Adams and Rochester to win the district title. Next came two-time defending state champion Birmingham Marian and then Troy to capture the regional crown, setting up last week's run to the state finals in Battle Creek.

"It was the best experience ever, even though we didn't win," said senior Shannon Murdock. "We learned so much and will have the memories forever."

Lake Orion met state-ranked Macomb Dakota in quarter-final competition in St. Clair Shores, bringing another group of loud and proud Dragon fans with them.

The Cougars took the first two games of the match, winning a close one 26-24 and then dominating the second, 26-17. Howey admitted that his team may have been a little too "amped" early in the contest and made uncharacteristic mistakes.

He settled the team down between games and the senior players also voiced their thoughts on the team's play. The entire team responded by racing out to a 16-3 lead in the third game, led by Murdock and her sister, junior Sophie. The Dragons won 25-14.

Macomb Dakota regrouped itself and made a contest of the fourth game before Lake Orion took control late and won, 25-22. With momentum on their side, the Lady Dragons outlasted the Cougars in the fifth and deciding game, 15-13, punching their ticket to the Final Four.

"The third game was huge - we took away their momentum and their confidence all at once," said Howey. "It took us a couple games to relax and find our game. One of our mottos is 'refuse to lose' – that's been our goal since back in July. Since then it's been our goal to get to Battle Creek."

Two nights later, Lake Orion's volleyball team faced its top league rival, the Clarkston Wolves, with revenge and a bigger prize in sight, a trip to the final match in the playoffs.

The contest started with the Dragons taking the first three points and Sophie Murdock dominating play at the net. Lake Orion opened up a commanding 19-8 lead, before Clarkston put together a brief rally. Undaunted, Lake Orion capped off the game, 25-17.

The young but talented Clarkston squad regrouped and controlled the second game of the match, stepping up its intensity and keeping the Lady Dragons on their heels defensively. After a timeout, during which Howey reminded his team to relax, Lake Orion gained some momentum to tie the game, 8-8, but the Wolves responded by not bowing and won, 25-16.

"I thought we came out strong in the first game and Clarkston turned the tables in the second," Howey said. "Still, I was very confident."

So was his team, for that is when Lake Orion's depth, skill and experience took over the match. The team put Clarkston in an 11-3 hole in the third game, thanks in part to continued strong net play. The Dragons responded to a Wolves' timeout by going up 20-10, before winning the key game, 25-16.

The fourth game of this rivalry match mimicked two heavyweights slugging it out. The game was tied, 3-3, when two series featured def touches versus power moves that highlighted the skill of both squads. Clarkston won both points, however, and took a 7-4 lead. Sensing the momentum shift, Howey took an early timeout.

"I think coaches sometimes wait until it's too late to call timeout," Howey explained. "During that first timeout, I looked up at the score and hoped I did not call it too early. But, I told girls it's not too late to turn it around – we're only down by three points."

The Lady Dragons returned refreshed and went on a 6-2 run. When Lake Orion took a 17-14 lead, Clarkston's coach took her own timeout to try and slow the momentum.

From there the battle truly began, with the teams trading hard-fought points into the 20s. Down 22-21, Howey called another timeout and the team responded by tying the game. Smelling victory, Lake Orion pushed one last time for the final three points, including a decisive kill by junior Melanie Heath and ace by senior Maddie Hutchison to close out the match, 25-22.

It was another historic win for Lake Orion's volleyball program, vaulting the Lady Dragons into the state final versus Rockford.

"During that fourth game, if we could hang in there I knew we could pull it out in the end, Howey said, noting he thought the team's depth of hitters wore down the Wolves.

His players were more emphatic. "It was an unforgettable game,"said Hutchison. "We beat Clarkston to knock them out of the finals. I will always remember beating them when it counted the most."

That set up last Saturday's championship final. When Lake Orion finally took the floor for warm-ups after the earlier Class C match was extended to five games, the team was greeted by a loud and boisterous mix of students, families and supporters cheering for an unprecedented volleyball title.

Lake Orion had played Rockford three times earlier in the season in tournaments, with a 1-2 record. Still, going into the match, Howey felt good about his team, how they reacted all season against very good competition and playing the Rams yet again.

In the first game, Rockford's height advantage was evident and, according to Howey, the Rams raised their speed of play compared to earlier in the year, jumping out to an 8-3 lead. Lake Orion was able to close within two points twice, 14-12 and 23-21, but Rockford clamped down and won the first game, 25-21.

After the break, the refocused Lady Dragons captured momentum early in the second game, taking a 6-2 lead before Rockford called a timeout. The Rams fought back to tie it 13-13, but Lake Orion scored three straight points to make it 16-13. Seniors Shannon Murdock, Hutchison and Hargraves made a variety of key plays during the game, Howey said.

Unfortunately, the Rams fought back again to tie the game at 16, before taking control late again and coming from behind to win, 25-23.

The loss in the second game was tough to take, according to Howey.

"We just didn't have quite enough to close them out and tie the match and I think that sunk the girls' confidence some," the head coach said. "But, as well as Rockford was playing, we were still there."

That optimism vanished, however, when the Rams quickly closed the door on any Lake Orion comeback in the third game. The Rams could seemingly do no wrong. With the game tied 3-3, Rockford finished the match with a 22-7 run to win its first state volleyball title, 3-0.

"They were on fire," Howey said. "That was the best Rockford played all year. In fact, that was the best performance by a high school team I've ever seen. We had a hard time adjusting our blocking and their hitters took over."

Immediately after the match, the coach told his team they should be proud of their accomplishment and to never forget the seven wins it took to reach the state championship. He said it was a fantastic season and set the tone for the future of the program.

"There was no better way to finish the season, we just came up a little short in the final match," Howey said.

There is no doubt the volleyball team's three-week run to the state championship game made their families, friends and the entire community proud, as well.

In addition, their performance captivated both long-time and new fans of the sport at the high school, impressed by the intensity and dedication of the team that refused to lose.

"There's never been so much support for volleyball," Liz Kulugar said. "It showed everyone our sport really mattered."

Every sports program has a hurdle to overcome, said Athletic Director Bill Riess. "For the volleyball team, it was getting past the quarter-finals. We took care of that and played our way into the state finals. This is a giant leap for our girls' volleyball program."

Senior Dana Schrauben agreed. "We've set the standard for volleyball here and how it should be played."

Kalugar added, "We showed you should never give up, even when things are down. "There's always someting to play for."

That would be a state title. Playing in front of a frenzied crowd in the last match of the Class A tournament left an impression on Shannon Murdock. "It made us feel famous," she said.

Indeed, move over boys - Lake Orion is now officially a volleyball school, too.

Review Staff Writer Gabriel Ouzounian contributed to this article.For color pictures see Page 12.

game made their families, friends and the entire community proud, as well.

In addition, their performance captivated both long-time and new fans of the sport at the high school, impressed by the intensity and dedication of the team that refused to lose.

"There's never been so much support for volleyball," Liz Kulugar said. "It showed everyone our sport really mattered."

Every sports program has a hurdle to overcome, said Athletic Director Bill Riess. "For the volleyball team, it was getting past the quarter-finals. We took care of that and played our way into the state finals. This is a giant leap for our girls' volleyball program."

Senior Dana Schrauben agreed. "We've set the standard for volleyball here and how it should be played."

Kalugar added, "We showed you should never give up, even when things are down. "There's always someting to play for."

That would be a state title. Playing in front of a frenzied crowd in the last match of the Class A tournament left an impression on Shannon Murdock. "It made us feel famous," she said.

Indeed, move over boys - Lake Orion is now officially a volleyball school, too.

Review Staff Writer Gabriel Ouzounian contributed to this article.For color pictures see Page 12.

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