SCHOOLCRAFT — First it was the tennis courts, then the softball field.
Finally the Schoolcraft volleyball team got back to its familiar digs in the gym to start this unusual season.
In spite of the unorthodox beginning, the girls were just happy to be playing, said senior libero Kelby Goldschmeding.
After losing in five sets to perennial power Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in the MHSAA Division 3 Final a year ago, the Eagles are hoping for a rematch down the line.
St. Mary has been ranked No. 1 and Schoolcraft No. 2 in the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association poll all season.
The 31-3 Eagles started their postseason with a 3-0 win against Decatur on Monday and will face White Pigeon on Wednesday in the District Semifinal at Schoolcraft.
“The biggest thing this year is don’t take a thing for granted,” Schoolcraft coach Erin Onken said. “Nothing is a given. It’s day-by-day, and you live or die.
“I think we are successful because we have really great, hard-working kids, too. We play for each other and respect what we’re trying to do.”
The Eagles graduated “a huge player” from last season in Andelyn Simkins, now playing volleyball at Western Michigan University.
“The question early on that everybody asked was how do you replace that,” Onken said.
“I said you don’t replace that, you hope that the qualities that were instilled in the group carry over, like being grateful and working hard.”
In her ninth year coaching the Eagles, Onken has taken her team to the Finals twice, losing to St. Mary both times.
Last year, “we tried to keep everything in perspective: if we win, we win. if we lose, we lose, but we want to go down the way we did,” she said.
“It was hard. Just getting there was pressure enough, then going five sets, I think they were just grateful for the experience and that definitely transferred over to this year, having so many return.”
Four starters are back from last year’s team: Allie Goldschmeding, Maggie Morris, Kayla Onken and Anna Schuppel. All are seniors.
Setter Kayla Onken said making it to the Finals last year gave her perspective.
“You have to take every moment in, soak it in, and make the most out of every situation,” she said. “Whether it’s a win or a loss, it’s still a very big part of my playing career.
“It teaches you to give your full-out effort, no matter what, even if you’re exhausted mentally, physically. It’s emotionally draining because it’s such a big atmosphere.”
A four-year starter, Kayla Onken said being the coach’s daughter was a challenge her freshman and sophomore years.
“I definitely got more backlash from it, mostly my freshman year, being the new kid and being the coach’s daughter,” she said. “It taught me you have to work for what you get, and I’ve always wanted to prove myself because I knew that this is what I wanted, this is what I have to do to get there.
“I thought I had to prove myself even more because of my position. There was some resentment sometimes, but that got me to where I am today.”
Erin Onken said her daughter overcame some teammates who did not feel she should play because she did not earn it.
“The thing I respect the most about (Kayla) is that she has absolutely made that her point,” Erin Onken said. “I want to start, I know I can, I know I’m talented, and if that’s who I have to beat out, then I’m going to go beat them out.”
Kayla Onken said having that special bond with her coach mom is something a lot of people never experience, but “It’s definitely a topic of conversation at the house.
“I don’t really get an off moment from being a coach’s kid,” she added. “It’s nice, but it can be draining sometimes, too.”
Talking about these seniors, the coach gets a bit wistful, more so than other years.
“It’s hard because I have seven seniors now and they’re (Kayla’s) friends,” she said. “It’s always hard to say good-bye to a group of seniors.
“These kids I know even more because I see them all the time.”
Taking nothing for granted
Kayla Onken joined Simkins on the all-state first team last season, while Morris and Schuppel made the second team and Kelby Goldschmeding earned honorable mention.
Looking back to the start of theis season, Goldschmeding said she is just happy they are having one this fall.
“First we practiced on the tennis courts, and then our maintenance crew made a court on the softball field for us, in the grass in the outfield,” she said.
“We were all happy just to be out there playing again, but we were doing a bunch of ball control and all that. We were just happy to have an actual net and actual court lines because then we could serve and hit.”
Goldschmeding has an additional reason to be grateful for this opportunity. As a sophomore, she sat out after suffering minor concussions.
“It was really hard for me,” she said. “I think I just came back stronger from them, knowing that I’m just thankful to be back on the court and be able to play still.”
Onken said Goldschmeding is mentally tough.
“She never came back timid,” she said. “The team is always so supportive and happy to have her back. I think that helped.
“It was never from getting hit from an attack. It was always from hustle play. She’ll run through these bleachers to get a ball and even now, there’s no hesitation in her, which is really cool.”
Senior middle Maggie Morris also missed a year after suffering a broken ankle her freshman season, and she said it was an eye-opener.
“It helped me as a player realizing that I can’t take anything for granted,” she said.
Getting back to the Final has been the team’s goal all year.
“Having the chance to play at Kellogg (Arena in Battle Creek) was an amazing experience,” Morris said. “We’ve been working at it every day off and on the court.”
She said a key to the team’s success is the team identity: “Grateful, family over everything, nothing is a given, positive and constant communication and holding each other reliable and accountable.”
Other seniors on the team are Lilli Curtis and Hannah Grochowski.
The lone junior is Sophie Ridge and sophomores are Abbi Curtis, Allison Bailey, Camden Bruner and Cassidy Bruner.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Schoolcraft’s Allie Goldschmeding digs a ball during a match this fall. (Middle) Anna Schuppel gets high over the net to send back a volley. (Below) Clockwise, from top left: Kelby Goldschmeding, Maggie Morris, coach Erin Onken, Kayla Onken. (Action photos by John Curtis; head shots by Pam Shebest.)