Fly Like an Eagle

December 16, 2011

Nicole DeGrace knew that with her father Chip as Frankenmuth’s volleyball coach, the Eagles would go places.

But when he told them where he thought they were headed, she didn’t believe him.

At the end of tryouts in August, Chip DeGrace -- promoted this fall after more than a decade coaching at lower levels in the program -- told his new varsity players they'd finish this season at the MHSAA Finals in Battle Creek.

“I didn’t think much of it. He believed it, but we were like, ‘Are you serious?’” Nicole said. “I didn’t know how serious he was.”

Serious enough that the Eagles are one win from making his prediction come true.

Frankenmuth, by many accounts, is a basketball school when it comes to girls sports. But the Eagles are headed to the last week of the season after upsetting No. 4 North Branch in five games Thursday for a Class B Regional title at Mount Morris Junior High (25-19, 19-25, 18-25, 25-20, 15-7).

It was just one arguably unexpected result in what’s turned into a tournament full of them. Canton upset reigning Class A runner-up Farmington Hills Mercy to win its first Regional ever, and Macomb Dakota and Charlevoix also won Regionals for the first time. Tecumseh won its first since 1992, with Lake Orion and Livonia Stevenson also needing at least a few decades to recall their last Quarterfinal berth. Saginaw Valley Lutheran’s Regional championship was its first since 1983.

Thursday’s win gave Frankenmuth just its third Regional title in program history. All three have come during the last seven seasons, but the Eagles never have advanced further. And beating North Branch to get another shot made it arguably the best win in program history, adding to a season during which the Eagles (53-9-3) have set a school record for victories with four more than the previous best.

“Without a doubt, it’s the fact we have eight seniors on the team. That is the reason,” Chip DeGrace said, explaining why the program has taken such a big step this fall. “It’s (just) a coincidence my daughter is one of them. These kids came into high school as freshmen, and the combination of athletic talent, intelligence, competitiveness, and love for volleyball, you could see it.”

Granted, North Branch graduated significant contributors from last season’s Class B runner-up team. But the Broncos annually are considered a state powerhouse, with an MHSAA championship in 2009 and a Class A runner-up finish in 2007 helping boost that reputation.

Despite defeating the Broncos on Sept. 21 and eventually winning the Tri-Valley Conference East championship – the Eagles’ first league title since 2002 – Frankenmuth remained unranked and in the Broncos' shadow heading into Districts. North Branch closed the regular season by beating the Eagles at the all-division TVC Tournament, right after Frankenmuth lost senior libero Morgan Trinklein – who DeGrace called the best defensive specialist in program history – to a knee injury.

But there also was good news for the Eagles. Frankenmuth won its District, then beat No. 10 Mount Morris to open Regional play. Senior Emily Wee, an MHSAA hurdles champion, came back from an injury two-thirds of the way through the regular season and has provided reinforcement to a strong front line -- Nicole DeGrace’s 654 kills make the MHSAA record book list, as do junior Maddy Mertz’ 155 blocks. Three defensive specialists have upped their play in Trinklein's absence. And although senior Addie Loftus’ 839 assists fall a bit short of record book mention, they are all the more impressive considering the Eagles use two setters in their offense.

Thursday's victory also came near the end of a four-year string that included three coaches and the many system and position changes that come with turnover. When senior Olivia Shelton killed the final point Thursday, Nicole DeGrace said the feeling was a mix of validation and pride.

The Eagles will carry both into Tuesday’s Quarterfinal against another perennial power, Marysville, on North Branch’s home court.

“I think we’ve kinda learned it’s not as much about thinking. It’s more about just playing,” Nicole DeGrace said. “Most of the time in our huddle with my dad now, it’s ‘Stop thinking, just play.’ And when that happens, it’s crazy. It’s just awesome.”

Click for interactive brackets for all MHSAA classes.

Click for the Flint Journal story from Thursday's Frankenmuth/North Branch match.

(Top) Frankenmuth celebrates its third Regional title ever after defeating North Branch in five games Thursday at Mount Morris High.
(Below) Senior Morgan Trinklein (10) injured her left knee in the final regular season match, but played a big part in the Eagles' TVC championship run.

(Photos courtesy of Frankenmuth volleyball.)