By Jeff Chaney
Special for Second Half
BATTLE CREEK – A championship rubber match between North Branch and Lake Odessa Lakewood closed the 2016 volleyball season Saturday night.
Twice before, these perennial powers had met for the Class B title. Lakewood beat the Broncos for the 2012 championship in three games, while North Branch came home with the title in 2014, also beating the Vikings in three.
With a noticeable height advantage across the board, North Branch this time took advantage of its size early and seized control in the first game on its way to a 25-15, 25-21, 25-20 victory that clinched the program's third Class B championship at Battle Creek's Kellogg Arena.
"I have never seen our team so focused," said North Branch coach James Fish, whose Broncos end their season with a 58-9 record. "We were so focused the whole match. We didn't get too high or too low. We had a great gameplan, and they executed it."
That gameplan was to attack the net, which the Broncos did all three games, finishing with a .222 attack percentage and 40 kills to Lakewood's .091 attack percentage and 31 kills.
"They were bigger than us, and we didn't have a way to stop them," said Lakewood coach Kellie Rowland, whose team ended its great run 54-6. "Their size played a huge factor. We did everything we could to get up and block them, but they just went over us."
Two tall Broncos for whom Lakewood had no answer were 6-foot-1 sophomore outside hitter Allyson Severance and 6-1 senior middle hitter Olivia Fike.
Severance led all net players with 12 kills, while Fike finished with seven.
"Thursday (a tough five-game Semifinal win over Buchanan) we were shaken because we didn't know what to expect because we never heard of them," Fike said. "But before tonight, we knew exactly what to expect because we have been here before against this team. We have been battling with them for the past few years back and forth, and we were more comfortable."
Fish was grateful his team was able to get through Thursday and into the Final.
"I apologized to our team for Thursday, because I got out-coached Thursday," Fish said. "They bailed me out Thursday, and that's just not saying that. We were lucky to win Thursday, because we played a great team, and we weren't prepared. So we made sure we were prepared tonight, because we practiced on it and practiced on it, and they executed the gameplan to perfection tonight."
That's saying a lot coming from a coach with 17 years experience, who stands 24 wins shy of 1,000 and now has won three MHSAA championships to go with three runner-up finishes.
"We beat a great team tonight," Fish said. "They are a phenomenal program with an outstanding coach. We just played extremely well tonight."
Senior Madee Miner completed her great career at North Branch with 33 assists, while senior libero Stephaney Fifield ended the match with 17 digs.
Junior middle blocker Brenna Wickerink paced Lakewood in kills with 11, while senior setter Gabie Shellenbarger led the Vikings with 23 assists.
PHOTOS: (Top) North Branch’s Olivia Fike (12) attempts to send the ball over the net and past a Lakewood blocker. (Middle) The Broncos raise their Class B championship trophy Saturday.