By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
MONROE – Karen O’Brien took the whole “rankings-don’t-matter” approach and threw it out the window this year.
And, for her Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central volleyball team, the method has worked.
SMCC took over the top spot in the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association Division 3 rankings in Week 3 after beating formerly top-ranked Bronson, the three-time reigning Class C champion.
The Kestrels appear to be thriving in the top spot.
“In my past years, when we have been ranked No. 1 or No. 2, I’ve kind of disregarded it,” said O’Brien, a veteran volleyball coach in her fourth year at SMCC. “I’d always say that it didn’t matter where we were ranked until after the season. But, this season, I took a different approach. This year, we’ve embraced being No. 1, that people are coming after us.
“We have a saying, ‘Embrace the Noise,’” she said. “The noise is people who are out to beat us. It puts a little more pressure on us, but I think we’ve responded well. Since our last loss, on September 15, we have won 25 straight matches. We haven’t lost a set during that time.”
SMCC is 44-3 on the season. The Kestrels captured multiple regular-season tournament titles, breezed through the Huron League without losing a set, won the District title and Thursday beat No. 10 Brighton Charyl Stockwell 25-15, 25-17, 25-20 for the 14th Regional championship in program history.
SMCC will move on to the Quarterfinals against fifth-ranked Manchester. Several ranked teams remain alive in the Division 3 tournament – but they are all looking up to SMCC.
“We’re looking at it like, ‘Hey, we’re glad we are No. 1. We’re ready. Give us your best,’” O’Brien said.
She said she changed approaches to the rankings because, simply, the last time the team tried to ignore being ranked No. 1 and it didn’t work.
“I’m always willing to try new things, a new approach,” she said. “If something doesn’t work, why not?”
Just about everything has been working for the Kestrels this season, starting with the right blend of four sophomores, four juniors and four seniors on the team.
“It’s a unique group,” O’Brien said. “There is a lot of unity and a good blend of personalities.”
Maddie Haut and Abby Jackson are the senior co-captains.
“Their leadership has just worked very well,” O’Brien said. “This is the closest group that I’ve had since I’ve been here. Everyone knows their role, they understand their role and they do their role well. There’s no selfishness on this team. That’s a huge part of (the success). All 12 girls know their role, and their parents know their role. There’s no drama with this group.”
Maddie Haut leads the team in blocks, followed closely by Kylie Barron. Maddie’s sister Mikayla is a sophomore with enormous potential and leads the team in kills, averaging 4.4 a set, and aces with nearly 90. Jackson averages more than 4.5 digs per set and senior Jessica Long and junior Sarah Reicker lead the team in assists.
SMCC has been able to have amazing focus all season.
“Volleyball is such a game of momentum,” O’Brien said. “Not just from set to set, but from rally to rally. We’ve been down in a set, and we’ve been able to come back. We’re pretty good at just rolling with the punches.”
O’Brien is a Livonia native and was the first female athlete in Stevenson history to earn nine varsity letters. She was a first-team all-state volleyball player in 1981 and also played basketball and competed in track & field. She played college volleyball first at Schoolcraft Community College and then at the University of Georgia. The two-time All-Southeastern Conference pick coached at Georgia for two years before moving back to Michigan and becoming an assistant coach at Michigan State University in the late 1980s.
She was the University of Toledo’s head volleyball coach for five seasons and later coached at Siena Heights University and served a couple of stints as an assistant at Eastern Michigan University. She coached the Dundee High School volleyball team for nine seasons and became head coach at SMCC in 2015.
Her and her husband, Dan, started the Teal Attack to raise money for the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015. The program has raised more than $130,000 and has events at fundraisers at various Michigan high schools and colleges.
The Kestrels have won four straight District titles under O’Brien and played in the 2015 Class C Final, falling to Bronson in three sets decided by four points or fewer.
SMCC has been a state volleyball powerhouse for several years, winning championships in 2003, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2014 and producing several college volleyball players. A handful of this year’s squad will likely move on to the next level as well, including the senior co-captains.
The Kestrels have had some spirited practices this season, O’Brien said. While the first halves of practices often begin with routine ball-handling drills and teaching technique, practices usually end with some highly-competitive drills.
“We will go after one another,” she said. “The girls are competitive. I always tell them to make the other person better because that will make the team better.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTO: Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central coach Karen O’Brien instructs her team Thursday during a timeout in its Regional Final against Brighton Charyl Stockwell. (Photo by Tom Hawley).