By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
LELAND – Small school, big aspirations.
Welcome to Leland, where the volleyball and soccer programs are once again celebrating success.
Both teams are ranked No. 3 in state coaches polls in their respective sports and divisions.
And both are hoping to make deep runs in the MHSAA tournament.
That's been the norm in volleyball. The Comets – Class D champs in 1978 and 1980 (Lower Peninsula), 2002 and 2006 – reached the Class D Final last November before dropping a four-setter to perennial power Battle Creek St. Philip.
The soccer program is making noise, too, with three consecutive district titles, including an MHSAA Semifinal appearance in 2012.
"Obviously, the volleyball program has tradition," soccer coach Joe Burda said. "We've been around lately. We're trying to start our own (tradition)."
His Comets are 15-2, heading into Friday night's showdown at Muskegon Western Michigan Christian, the school that beat Leland in the regional final a year ago.
The volleyball team is 20-5-4. One of the losses was to St. Philip in a season-opening tournament. Another was to Class A Caledonia in the final of the Morley-Stanwood Invitational.
Some 60 students – almost half of Leland's 122 total – play soccer or volleyball.
"There's definitely momentum behind both programs," athletic director Ryan Knudsen said. "The kids are having fun, learning a lot about their sport, learning life lessons, and being successful, and that really draws kids to want to participate. It carries on from year to year and you can see it all the way down to our middle school and elementary programs. There's an excitement."
Leland is the smallest school in the Northwest Conference. Size, though, does not deter the spirit, and the Comets thrive on the challenge.
"Our coaches do an outstanding job," Knudsen said. "But we also have tremendous support from our school board, administration and community. They all understand that being the smallest school in the conference, and the fact we schedule as many challenging non-conference games as possible in all our sports, helps us prepare our student-athletes and teams to be able to have longstanding success. We're excited about the present and we're excited about the future."
That sentiment is readily apparent in volleyball. Coach Laurie Glass, who has won MHSAA titles as a player and coach at Leland, has an interesting blend in her starting lineup, ranging from two returning all-state seniors to two promising freshmen.
The team has grown considerably since that early-season loss to St. Philip.
"We have a very strong team," senior Maddie Trumbull, the team's floor captain, said. "We started off a little slow, but our freshmen are really stepping up and are a big part of our team. They have made such a difference. We are so much better than we were four weeks ago."
Glass said playing St. Philip so early in the season was an advantage.
"You have to bring your best in order to compete with St. Phil," she said. "It sets the tone for what you've got to work on in order to get back there (Battle Creek is host site of the MHSAA Finals)."
Trumbull, an outside hitter, and Eva Grobbel, a middle hitter, are the returning all-state players. They lead the team in kills. Trumbull also tops the charts in hitting efficiency and Grobbel in blocks, according to Glass.
"Maddie's even better now than she was last year (when she led the team with 572 kills), and she's really developed her leadership skills," Glass said. "Eva played club in the spring, and she's varied her offense."
Glass said opponents often focus their gameplans on trying to stop Trumbull at the net – and that's a mistake.
"We have too many other weapons and we have the ability to move (Trumbull) around so they just can't camp out on her on the outside," Glass said.
Other key contributors are senior ViAnna Hennig, who battled shin splints last season, but is now physically tougher and stronger; freshman outside hitter Allie Martin; freshman setter Ella Siddall, junior libero Julie Bardenhagen; and junior Rachel Bechtel, a strong server, and sophomore Rowan Wilson, who split time. Martin leads the team in aces, Siddall in assists. Martin and Siddall were team managers last season.
Siddall has replaced graduated Jessica Fleis as the setter.
"That's the toughest position to replace," Glass said. "We run a pretty complicated offense, so to be able to call audibles on the fly, that's a lot for a freshman. That speaks to her talent."
Bardenhagen, who's replaced another spring graduate in Whitney Schaub, has helped solidify the defense and passing game at libero.
"In our first tournament we didn't have a libero," Glass said. "We didn't have anyone to replace Whitney. We really struggled passing and didn't have a good anchor on the back row."
Now it seems to be clicking.
"It's been going so much better because I didn't know what to expect," Grobbel admitted. "We lost our libero, our setter, and they were a huge part of our team. But we all want to win a state championship. We've worked so hard together to try to make that happen."
"Right after the state finals (last November) we were already looking forward to this season, making plans for what we can do better," she said. "We're always thinking about how we can get better, how we can win a state championship."
"I think this team wants to go deep again," Glass added. "They have certainly set their sights on that from the beginning. If it has anything to do with work ethic and team chemistry, they have all the pieces they need to make a run."
Leland's reached at least the quarterfinals in five of the last six years. Glass attributes the program's success to player development at the middle school level, where a higher priority is placed on learning the game and proper techniques as opposed to winning.
"It's about doing the right things for the right reasons at the right time," Glass said.
Burda, meanwhile, is in his sixth season leading the soccer program. And he has it rolling with 39 players out, which allows for a junior varsity team.
The Comets are tough up front with senior Mike Osorio and junior Noah Fetterolf. Clarke Morgan, a four-year varsity veteran, anchors the defense. Rick Roman is an experienced keeper.
"They've all been different," Burda said of his teams. "I think I see more potential in this team, though. I think we're more balanced offensively and defensively. We've always been strong down the middle, but we're strong at all of our other positions, too."
Osorio and Fetterolf are the scoring leaders who keep opposing defenses honest. They are particularly dangerous when Leland counter attacks. Morgan, meanwhile, commands respect from his sweeper position.
"He chases down everybody and everything," Burda said.
Leland's only two losses came on the same day – setbacks to Harbor Springs and Elk Rapids in a tournament at Elk Rapids. The Comets were shorthanded that day, minus, among others, Fetterolf.
The Comets went through September without a loss, including a 4-1 victory over the Elks.
"We're just preparing every day for the next game because that's the only one that matters," Morgan said. "If we focus on one game at a time, focus on each opportunity, we can really do something in the post-season."
Morgan said the Comets are "super competitive" and that drives them in their quest to be the best.
"We're always trying to push each other to reach our full potential," the 17-year-old said.
Morgan, who also plays club soccer for the Midwest United FC travel team out of Grand Rapids, said the Comets have all "the key components," including chemistry.
"It's really cool," he said. "Our school is so small you see everyone in class, you see everyone around school and then you go to soccer practice and it's the same people. We have a good bond, a good connection."
Burda is hoping to parlay that into something special.
"We want to make another run," he said. "We want to get back to the Final Four."
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Leland soccer senior Clarke Morgan, left, and volleyball senior Maddie Trumbull are among standouts for the school's standout teams this fall. (Middle) Senior Eva Grobbel unloads a serve during a match this week. (Below) Senior Mike Osorio lines up a kick during a game this season. (Soccer photos courtesy of Katia Skarupinski; volleyball photos by Gwen Martin.)