By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
BYRON CENTER – The Byron Center volleyball team switched leagues this season, from the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green to the O-K White.
It’s been a change for the better.
The Bulldogs won conference and District championships last season, then was relocated to a conference that includes perennial state powerhouses Grand Rapids Christian and Lowell, as well as Forest Hills Central.
“This change for our conference was huge,” Byron Center senior libero Abby Boyle said. “Our past conference had some really great competition, but this year it’s really been a step up. It’s really been preparing us for some tougher games, and hopefully it will help us move forward past Districts and past Regionals and really make it far this year.”
Despite the increased level of competition, the Bulldogs have held their own.
They have been ranked as high as No. 2 in Division 1 and are currently 11-2 overall and 4-1 in the conference after suffering a tough five-set loss to top-ranked Grand Rapids Christian on Tuesday.
“It’s been a really good experience playing against the tougher teams,” senior middle hitter Anna Butler said. “When you play the harder teams, you really want to step up your game and you want to play to your highest potential. It has pushed us to be better every practice, and we’ve really improved every match.”
The Bulldogs returned nine players from last year, and the experience has helped the team thrive despite the decrease in games and early outdoor practices due to the current pandemic.
“Overall they’ve played very well, and we’ve competed against some very good teams,” Byron Center coach Katie Vander Meer said. “We beat Lowell, which is one of the top three teams in the state, and our two losses came against Grand Rapids Christian, which finished back-to-back state runner-up and is ranked No. 1. Forest Hills Central is another tough competitor.
“The girls are playing a very high level of volleyball, which is impressive to see with as little volleyball as we’ve played. We’ve only played 13 matches so far in comparison to a normal year where we would have 20-something in by now. I think where we’re at is very good.”
The Bulldogs led 2-1 in their match against Christian, but couldn’t close it out.
Vander Meer said lessons continue to be learned from those narrow defeats.
“I think we did a lot of things very well, but I think the wheels came off a little in the fifth set,” she said. “Obviously we came up short, but I think we are learning a lot from playing a team like that. I think we’re growing from playing a team like that, and I think we’re just going to keep getting better.”
The Bulldogs have been paced by Boyle and Butler, as well as juniors Taylor Humphrey (outside hitter) and Cierra Laska (setter).
Boyle leads the team with 190 digs.
“We have a great defensive foundation between Abby and defensive specialists Amanda Hilliker and Sara Zimmerlee,” Vander Meer said. “Their ability to read hitters and dig balls keeps us in games.”
Humphrey (179 kills) and Butler (102 kills) have provided solid play at the net.
“Offensively, they are our go-to hitters and can put balls away from anywhere on the court,” Vander Meer said. “Not to mention being helpful defensively with their ability to block balls. Marie Baar, Ryen Karel and Makenzi Bennett have stepped up in starting roles and have helped contribute to the front row.”
Laska has emerged as a dual threat for the Bulldogs with 258 assists and 41 kills.
“She has done a great job running our offense as well as being an offensive threat,” Vander Meer said. “Freshman Caroline Baker has also stepped up both defensively and in the setting role to allow more flexibility in our offense.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTO: Byron Center senior libero Abby Boyle has been among catalysts during the team’s 11-2 start. (Photo courtesy of the Byron Center volleyball program.)