By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – Dave Hall laughs when he talks about his almost daily phone conversations with friend and coaching companion Ron Stremlow.
The two are among the most successful volleyball coaches in MHSAA history. Stremlow, now in his 34th season, has amassed 904 victories in stints at Kingsley and Fife Lake Forest Area. Hall, who Stremlow coaxed into replacing him at Kingsley in 1999, has 857.
“We probably talk for an hour every night,” Hall said. “He’s been a great mentor to me over the years. I’ve bounced a lot of ideas off him.
"It’s funny because about four or five years ago he called me a couple times and started asking questions. ‘Hey, what would you do …’ For 12 years or so, it was always him giving me advice. He would rarely ask me anything. So when Ron started asking me what I would do in certain situations – ‘would you double block against them?’ – I thought, I finally made it. I got the master’s attention.”
Forest Area and Kingsley – the schools are about 12 miles apart – are attracting a lot of attention this season. Both schools reached the Regional Finals a year ago, and despite losing three key players to graduation, are ranked No. 5 in their respective classes this week by the coaches association – Kingsley in Class B and Forest Area in Class D.
It’s the first time Kingsley (36-2-1) has been ranked in Class B.
“We were in Class C a long time and were ranked a number of years,” Hall said. “We had one stretch where we won 50 games or more four years in a row and in one of those years we were ranked No. 1 for a few weeks. But we’ve never even cracked honorable mention in Class B until this year.”
Kingsley won the school’s first Class B District title in any sport last fall.
Forest Area (28-4), meanwhile, clinched at least a share of the Ski Valley Conference title Tuesday, giving the Warriors back-to-back crowns, a first for the school in the league’s current setup.
“The conference had (two) divisions for several years and we won our division a lot, but since we (eliminated the divisions) a few years ago we had never won back-to-back (championships),” Stremlow said.
Coaching consistency has been a hallmark in the two programs.
Stremlow and Hall have had a strong coaching relationship since 1996 when Hall, a former head football coach at Central Lake, accepted a teaching position at Kingsley. Stremlow was coaching the JV football team at the time and had just taken on the varsity volleyball job after a run at Forest Area. Hall assisted him with JV football.
When Kingsley decided to start a freshman volleyball program, Stremlow asked Hall if he would coach the team. After some arm-twisting, Hall accepted.
“I said, ‘Ron, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a volleyball game,’” Hall said. “He said, ‘That’s OK. I’ll help you.’ Well, the first volleyball I ever watched was my first practice.”
After one season, the JV job opened and Stremlow talked Hall into that position as well. After the 1999 campaign – and three District titles in four years – Stremlow returned to Forest Area to coach volleyball.
“We (Kingsley) had a good team, but I was teaching at Forest Area and that makes it a little easier (to coach),” Stremlow said. “I told Dave, ‘I think you’re ready to take that program.’ In 1996, we won the first District at Kingsley so we got things going. And Dave has kept it going, which I expected.”
That’s not to say Hall felt prepared to replace Stremlow.
“I wasn’t ready,” he admitted.
But he had a junior on the team, Atesha Olds, who helped him through it.
“I’d come into practice and say (to Atesha), ‘Hey, what do you think we should do today? Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s do that.’” he recalled with a laugh.
“It’s a funny story because by the time she came back for her senior year I had watched every video, read every how-to coaching book, watched a lot of college games. I had a plan. About the second day of practice, she stopped and said, ‘What happened to you?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘Well, you kind of know what you’re doing.’”
The team won a District in Hall’s first season and the victories started piling up from there.
“I fell in love with it,” Hall said.
Still, he had a decision to make in 2007 when the MHSAA switched seasons for some sports, including volleyball, which went from winter to fall. Hall was still coaching football and had moved up to the varsity staff under Tim Wooer.
“I’m a football guy. I love it. I thought I’d spend my career coaching football,” he said. “But I gave it up and haven’t missed a minute of it. Volleyball took over and then having a daughter (Leah) come through the program gave me the full buy-in.”
Hall’s overall record is 857-210-85. His team tied a school record with 56 victories last season.
“We’ve had great kids, lots of talent,” Hall said. “And, hopefully, I’ve had a little something to do with it somewhere along the line.”
The key, he added, is communication.
“I credit a lot of (success) to being able to communicate with girls and get them on the same page working together,” he said.
His players notice.
“His dedication, passion and love for volleyball inspires us,” senior libero Lacey Benton said. “It’s what we thrive on.”
“He wants us to do our best, and that (motivates) us to work harder and play better,” senior middle hitter Bekah Crosby added.
For the big games, Hall likes to put together a highlight video, accompanied by music, to fire up his team before the match.
“It’s one of the little things he does that shows how much he cares,” Benton said. “It’s really cool.”
For Forest Area, led by senior outside hitters Payton Leonard and Kelsey Mills, this is the second highest it has ever been ranked. It’s ironic because Leonard’s mother, Teri, was on the team that was ranked as high as No. 4.
Stremlow, 904-511-178 overall, has led the Warriors to 10 District titles, but they are still seeking that elusive first Regional crown. They’ve lost to perennial power Leland in the Regional Finals the last two years.
“We’re right there,” Stremlow said. “We’ve been in the Regional Finals eight times. It’s not like we didn’t try. We’ve just run up against some good competition. When you’re the second or third best D or C team in the area, it’s tough.
“But it’s like I tell the kids, ‘Enjoy your moment, enjoy what you’re doing, create good memories. That’s what it’s about.’”
Stremlow, 57, is a believer in the “success breeds success” mantra. After all, he runs the winningest program in the school.
“The girls see it’s a successful program, and they want to be part of it,” he said. “That helps. And volleyball is more a team sport than some others, so it allows our girls to be part of something big.”
Leonard has been a part of the program for years. She’s a three-year starter, but before that served as a manager since third grade. It’s been an invaluable experience, she said.
“He gets super intense during games,” the 17-year-old said of Stremlow. “But (by listening) it makes you understand the game better, hearing his points of view and perspective.”
In addition to losing three starters to graduation off a 45-8-1 team, the Warriors have been playing without another starter, Morgan Kniss, who was injured in an automobile accident last spring. She was cleared to play last week.
In the meantime, Stremlow has had several players step up to complement Leonard and Mills, namely setter and ace defender Maddie Cummer, libero Annie Nietling, setter Kelsey Boyd and hitters Bella Hulwick and McKenzie Szymchack.
“They stepped up in their roles, and that’s what you want to happen,” Stremlow said.
The Warriors, who have won four of five tournaments this fall, would like nothing better than to three-peat in Districts and, of course, take another shot at Regionals.
“We want to win it this time,” Mills said. “We don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. The past doesn’t define us.
“Personally, I want to make it to the (Final Four). I want to play on that (Kellogg Arena) floor. I know what we’re capable of.”
So does Leonard.
“We’re super competitive,” she added. “We have this mentality that nothing’s going to stop us, that nothing’s going to get in our way. It’s a mindset.”
Forest Area has never won three Districts in a row.
Stremlow has had just four losing seasons in his career and he points with pride to last year’s seniors, who finished last in the league as sophomores.
“They went from last to first,” he said. “I told them that as long as you believe in the process you’ll get better. Just pay your dues and keeping working hard. That’s what they did. That’s the stuff you like to remember; keep working towards something and your time will come, and when it does step up.”
Stremlow, who was inducted into the coaches association Hall of Fame in 2015 (Hall was his presenter), uses his experiences to convey that message to his players.
“There are only 17 other coaches with 900 wins, but, I always tell the girls and I use it as a teaching tool, I’ll guarantee you I’m the only one with 500 losses, too,” he said. “I’ve experienced both ends. You’re going to fail sometimes, but don’t give up, keep working, keep trying. That’s my theory – keep working, have fun, create good memories and then pass it on.”
What’s made this season so enjoyable, the players agree, is that it’s a tight-knit group.
“We’ve made it so far already,” Leonard said. “Winning is awesome and so much fun, but it’s 10 times better when you love the game so much and you have a team that’s so close and bonded as we are.”
The same could be said of Kingsley.
“We’re so connected,” Benton said. “We’re all on the same page.”
Hall lost five of his top nine players from last year’s 56-7-3 team – three to graduation, one to another sport and one to transfer.
But he returned a nucleus that included Jessica Lefler, Brittany Bowman, Benton and Crosby.
Although he knew his team would still be strong, Hall worried about the void at setter. But Maddy Alger’s play eased that concern. Alger benefitted from some tutoring with Leah Olds, a setter at Lawrence Tech, who was back home this summer.
With the postseason in mind, Hall also elected to beef up the schedule, adding three tournaments against predominantly Class A and B schools. Despite all its regular-season success, Kingsley, once it moved up to Class B, has had trouble with Cadillac in the MHSAA tournament.
“They’ve ended our season eight of the last nine years,” Hall said. “They’ve been a thorn in our side.”
Seven of those years finished in Districts. The two teams were in different Districts last season, but met in the Regional Finals with the Vikings prevailing.
Cadillac and Kingsley will both be in a tournament at Mount Morris on Saturday. Monroe, ranked eighth in Class A, is in Kingsley’s pool.
And that’s the type of competition Hall wants his team to see.
“We were upfront with the girls before the season,” he said. “We said, ‘We’re not going to have a similar record (as last year) because we’re going to be playing in some tournaments where we might take some lumps. But we’re going to grow from it.’
“They all said, ‘We don’t care (about the record). We want to get better. We want a chance to make a run in the tournament.’ They understood we needed to play better competition to prepare us for teams like Cadillac, which plays a lot of Class A schools.”
The record, though, has not suffered.
“No way would I have predicted we would be 36-2 at this point,” the 48-year-old Hall said.
Kingsley started the season by winning a tournament at Allendale, beating Grant twice and Holland Christian. Both are honorable mention Class B teams.
“Our girls gained a ton of confidence that day, and it probably put us on some peoples’ radar,” Hall said.
Kingsley has gone on to win five of six tournaments. The two losses – to Leland and Calumet in the Cadillac tournament – were avenged last week.
With a win Thursday over Buckley, Kingsley could clinch a share of the Northwest Conference title, the team’s first goal.
“We’re focusing on what’s right here, what’s right in front of us,” Crosby said.
Soon that will be Cadillac. The teams will meet in a District opener.
And Hall expects his team to be ready.
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) Fife Lake Forest Area coach Ron Stremlow, left, and Kingsford coach Dave Hall huddle with their teams this season. (Middle) Forest Area’s Payton Leonard player winds up to swing. (Below) Jessica Lefler connects on a kill attempt for Kingsley. (Photos courtesy of the Forest Area and Kingsley volleyball programs.)