By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
Kendal Muxlow offered nothing but praise when asked about the Brown City volleyball class of 2017, which left the school as the most successful in program history.
She raved about her graduated teammates’ leadership, work ethic and ability to raise up every player around them as they led the Green Devils to three Regional titles, two Semifinal appearances and a Class C runner-up finish over the past three seasons.
But while Muxlow was certainly fond of playing with Becki Krause, Alexia Mason, Breigha Donnelly, Jasmin Bender and Haley Bandemer, she’s less fond of constantly being reminded they’re gone.
“I have. I have heard (they’re gone),” the Brown City junior said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “In practice, they held us to that standard, they expected state-bound team stuff during practice. We all got along well in practice and everything, and as much as they wanted to succeed, they wanted everyone to be a part of it also.
“Since I’ve been a freshman, we’ve been trying to get lots of girls in the gym to get them excited to want to be part of the program. We had a lot of people come up and want to get in the gym. It’s a lot easier to get to where you want to go when you have girls that are excited about the program.”
For Brown City, that destination remains the same in the short-term: Kellogg Arena for the MHSAA Class C Final. That’s where the Green Devils, who hadn’t won a Regional title before 2014, landed a year ago for the first time before falling to Bronson in four games.
Taking a longer view, however, this season represents a chance for Brown City to keep working toward a larger goal: showing it’s a program that can consistently compete at the level it has for the past three seasons.
“I think that if that wasn’t my goal, I should probably step down from coaching,” said Brown City coach Jenna Welke, who is entering her fifth season directing the varsity. “I’ve told the girls all about building the program – not just a team, but a program. We have to show those younger girls what Brown City volleyball is all about and set that standard.”
Welke and her players do realize what they’re up against. They’ll be replacing 65 percent of their kills from a year ago, 94 percent of their assists, 67 percent of their blocks and 78 percent of their digs.
But they’re welcoming the challenge.
“We’re definitely a different team from last year,” Welke said. “They’re young, and yes, they’re inexperienced, but they’re willing to work hard. I think any coach is going take a more inexperienced team if they’re willing to work hard.”
Muxlow and Ann Schlaud return with the most experience, both having played significant roles throughout 2016, and taking the floor in the MHSAA championship game a year ago. While the other names and faces may be unknown to those outside the program, those within are confident they’re ready to step up.
“We have a lot of great players that were kind of not playing as much last year because of the key seniors we had,” Schlaud said.
The players are also confident in their coach, who happens to be a 2008 graduate of their biggest rival, Marlette, where she was a dominant athlete. Muxlow said the players don’t give their coach any grief about that, but Welke laughed when asked if she received any from elsewhere.
“I had such a great experience at Marlette, so I’ll always respect them – I think they have great programs,” Welke said. “I teach at Brown City now. I coach at Brown City now. So now I’m a Green Devil, but I’ll always have respect for them.
“I think it’s a friendly rivalry. We always respect each other, yet you don’t want to lose to them.”
Brown City is certainly happy to have her, as Welke, also a four-year player at Oakland University, has amassed a 144-43-18 record in four years, winning four Greater Thumb Conference East titles, four District titles and three Regional titles.
With results like those, it’s easy to see how players have bought into Welke’s system and the belief that building a dynasty in this small town is a possibility.
“She’s one of those coaches that in practice will push you to your absolute hardest, but also one of those coaches that if you have to sit down and talk with her about something, she will listen,” Muxlow said. “Since Coach Welke has been here, we’ve only been going up. She came and we’ve just been hanging more banners than we ever had.
“It’s easier when we have all these girls wanting to be part of the program, because she’s done that for the program.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brown City’s Kendal Muxlow (7) unloads a swing during last season’s Class C Semifinal against Adrian Madison. (Middle) Ann Schlaud (8) puts up a block against Madison. (Below) Brown City coach Jenna Welke instructs her team during the trip to Kellogg.