By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – Juliana Phillips is diversifying her game on the volleyball court this season.
The 6-foot-4 Traverse City St. Francis senior, one of the top players in the state, is now setting for the Gladiators in addition to her featured roles as an outside hitter and middle blocker.
A year ago, Phillips registered 441 kills and 135 blocks in earning all-state honors and helping the Gladiators reach the MHSAA Class C Semifinals.
Over the summer, though, coach Rita Jones devised a plan to use Phillips as a setter when she’s in the back row.
“Setter is one of the most mentally demanding positions on the court,” Jones said. “If you’re mentally aware and mentally smart, it’s a huge advantage – and Juliana is playing that to her advantage this season. I think it’s making her a more well-rounded player.”
Phillips admitted she was surprised when Jones first suggested the move. She had never set previously.
“I thought she was joking,” Phillips said. “Then at our first (summer) scrimmage she ran me out there to set and I thought, ‘OK, here it goes.’
“Now I think it’s pretty cool. I like it. It’s a different aspect of the game. It’s interesting for me because I’ve always been a hitter, and now I get to see the other side of it.”
Jones said she had nothing to lose by asking Phillips to take on a new role.
“I thought if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” she said. “But it’s definitely worth a shot.”
Phillips is one of two primary setters on the team. Junior Meghan Rysztak is also new to the position. The Gladiators lost senior setter Alayna Anderson to a torn knee ligament on the first day of tryouts. Rysztak had 14 assists and Phillips seven – to go along with 12 kills and three blocks – in Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Charlevoix.
“Juliana is level-headed, very humble and such a team player – that’s what makes us most proud,” Lori Phillips, Juliana’s mother, said. “When she moved into the setter role she said, ‘I’m going to do what the team needs me to do, and whatever is going to make us better.’ It’s incredible she’s getting this opportunity because it’s teaching her such a different facet of the game.”
Phillips, a 3.8 student, has also moved into a leadership role on the team. The Gladiators had a strong senior leader a year ago in Madeline Rysztak.
“She’s a good leader,” said Meghan Rysztak, Madeline’s sister, of Phillips. “She knows when we can have fun and try different plays, but she also knows when it’s time to get serious, time to buckle down and start pushing some points.”
Phillips said her job is easier because of the team chemistry.
“What’s great about our team is that we know we’re always going to be friends off the court,” she said. “So at practice we push each other, hold each other accountable and just try to make each other better.”
Phillips is one of just two seniors playing this season. St. Francis, ranked No. 4 in this week’s coaches poll, is off to a 16-5 start. Two of the losses were to Class A Caledonia, an honorable mention pick this week. The Gladiators also fell to defending Class C champion Bronson, now ranked No. 2; Kalamazoo Christian, ranked No. 3 in Class C; and defending Class D champion Leland.
With a young lineup, the Gladiators are a work in progress.
“We’re asking a little bit more from our underclassmen, and they’re doing awesome,” Phillips said. “They’ve improved so much, so that’s good to see.
“It’s great that we played those (tough) teams early because it’s important for every team to know how much they can handle and how they can adjust to that kind of pressure and level of play. That’s been good for us. We’re just trying to learn and grow every day.”
Phillips committed to St. Louis University for volleyball after last season.
“Her upside is really big,” St. Francis basketball coach Keith Haske said. “I don’t think she’s anywhere near where she’s going to be in three years.”
A two-sport star, Phillips was instrumental last winter as the Gladiators reached the MHSAA Class C basketball championship game.
“She’s a Division I basketball player if she wants to be,” Haske said. “She’s athletic, and she’s skilled. She can shoot the 3, she can handle the ball, she’s a good passer, she blocks shots.”
Basketball roots run deep in the Phillips household. Lori (McClusky) is the all-time leading scorer at Gaylord St. Mary (1,555 points). She played collegiately at Colorado State and Central Michigan University. Juliana’s brother, Noah, averaged 19.8 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Gladiators his senior season. He went on to Ave Maria University before transferring to Grand Valley State University, where he’ll be eligible this winter.
Juliana, who has been playing basketball since kindergarten, always figured that would be her sport. But as a freshman she was called up to varsity for volleyball – and her passion for the game took off.
“I got more involved with it, started doing the club scene,” she said. “I fell in love with it. It was something new and something I thought I was pretty good at.”
“Honestly, I thought basketball was the sport she was going to play (in college),” Lori said. “It wasn’t until after her freshman year that she came to the conclusion that she wanted to pursue volleyball. It probably broke our hearts a little because we didn’t know volleyball very well. We’ve always been a basketball family. We didn’t realize what an incredibly fun game volleyball is to watch and be a part of. It’s been quite a ride and education.”
Before the start of her junior season in basketball, Phillips met with Haske, who had just taken over the girls program. He wanted to know if she was firm in her decision to play volleyball in college.
“I said you know we’re going to play a couple games and people (college coaches) are going to start saying, ‘We’ve got to get her,’” Haske said. “I told her I need to know because you don’t want those people to waste their time.”
Phillips didn’t waver. She told Haske she was going to commit to St. Louis.
Phillips had actually already received recruiting interest from colleges for basketball, St. Louis included. Phillips called the coaches to thank them for their interest and to inform them she was pursuing volleyball.
Soon afterward, Phillips was playing in a volleyball tournament in Grand Rapids, Lori recalled, and a St. Louis coach was there to watch.
“The (St. Louis) basketball coach had called the volleyball coach and said, ‘You better jump on this girl,’” Lori said.
The 17-year-old Phillips visited St. Louis twice, as well as several other schools.
“My mom went through this (recruiting) and she said you want to go on as many visits as you can to see what you like and don’t like,” Phillips said. “I knew the instant I got on the St. Louis campus that was the perfect match for me. I can’t help but smile when I think about it because I love that school so much – the campus, the coaches, the players.”
Lori also imparted some other words of wisdom on her daughter.
“I was always taught to use what God gave you,” she said. “That’s the biggest thing. Work hard, have fun and good things will happen. I always try to make sure she focuses on that. There are so many incredible lessons we learn through sports – not just the wins and losses, and the points, but teamwork and leadership.”
Phillips, who plans to go into the nursing program at St. Louis, will also be in a leadership role on the Gladiators’ basketball team, which will be strong again.
“She’s excited about it,” Haske said. “She’s a great team, chemistry person. She has no ego about her.”
Ironically, the Gladiators play at Gaylord St. Mary – her mother’s former school – early in the season.
But, for now, volleyball is her main concern.
“Obviously, we have high goals,” Phillips said. “Last season was incredible (with the trip to the Final Four at Kellogg Center), but it was not how we wanted to finish. It happens and it’s OK, but hopefully we can get back there this year.”
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) Juliana Phillips makes a block during Saturday's Traverse City Central Invitational. (Middle top) Phillips sets up a teammate for a spike during the Central event. (Middle below) Phillips wins the tip-off at last season's Class C Basketball Final. (Below) Phillips celebrates during the Charlevoix win this week. (Top two photos by Rick Sack/TC Rick Photo, bottom photo by Julie English.)