Recruiting & Scouting

North Branch could have another Miss Volleyball

Volleyball   | Bill Khan

North Branch could have another Miss Volleyball

North Branch — Laura Willson was tall, so she had that going for her.

North Branch's Jim Fish is a great volleyball coach, but even he can't coach a kid into being 6-foot-1 as a freshman.

So, despite a raw skill set, Willson made the 2011 varsity roster of a North Branch team that is a perennial state championship contender in Class B.

"We took her in as a freshman, put her on the varsity and everybody thought I was crazy for doing that," Fish said. "She really wasn't very good as a freshman, but she was 6-1. We could see the potential in her."

For all of the talent that has come through the North Branch program, 6-1 players don't come around every year.

The Broncos have had two Miss Volleyball winners and two other finalists before this season; three were setters and one was a libero.

"We've rarely had anybody that size," Fish said. "We're known for our defense and our setting. With her, we've changed that outlook and have had some hitting with it."

North Branch now has a tall girl on the Miss Volleyball ballot. Willson has justified Fish's initial faith in her, honing her skills to become one of the best players in the state. She was named All-State as a junior before becoming one of the 10 finalists for Miss Volleyball, which goes to the top senior player in Michigan.

Willson, who is still 6-1, has the benefit of being close with two former Miss Volleyball winners from North Branch, Olivia Kohler (2008) and Jordan Fish (2010). Kohler is an assistant coach for North Branch, while Fish is the daughter of the head coach and helped coach Willson in AAU.

"They just said to play my heart out and whatever happens, happens," Willson said. "Just be blessed that you got nominated and in the top 10."

Like many elite volleyball players, Willson became a one-sport athlete once she hit high school, giving up soccer. But the one activity in which she remained involved was dance, which encouraged Fish, despite being unimpressed when he first watched Willson as a seventh-grader.

"She was not very coordinated and was falling all over herself," he said. "But the key was she was always into dance. People told me if you watch her dance, she's just awesome. I knew that would translate over into volleyball."

Dance has helped her with more than her coordination on the volleyball court.

"It makes me more flexible, so I'm able to get to more balls," she said. "I'm able to jump higher."

Willson has nearly half of her team's kills with an average of 4.8 per game; the team's average is 10.9. She has a .375 hitting percentage (the team average is .283) and a .500 kill percentage (the team average is .416).

As a freshman, she served only three times, getting subbed when it was her time to play the back row. She is now an effective server (.886 success rate) and aces on 20.8 percent of her serves. She is third on the team with 1.8 digs per game.

The most impressive numbers, however, are these: 240 victories, 39 losses and 9 ties during her four-year career.

Willson's goal is to get that final victory total to 244, which would mean a state Class B championship for North Branch.

The Broncos lost to Frankenmuth in the regional finals her freshman year, to Lake Odessa Lakewood in the state final her sophomore year and to Pontiac Notre Dame Prep in a 24-22 fifth game in the quarterfinals last year.

Top-ranked N.D. Prep and second-ranked North Branch are on a collision course to meet in the state semifinals on Nov. 20 at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

"We're really looking forward to playing Notre Dame," Willson said. "Our No. 1 goal is to go to states and win states, but we've got to get there first. We really want to play them."

The Broncos had a great program before Willson arrived, reaching three state finals and winning one title.

She followed the team while she grew up, but wasn't prepared for the reality of being on the varsity when she was in ninth grade.

"The juniors and seniors were kind of scary," she said. "They were intense. Me and Mady Ruhlman were just coming out of eighth-grade volleyball. Eighth-grade volleyball is not that intense. We were moving right up to the varsity, which was kind of scary and intimidating. Once we went through the summer and did things as a team, we got more comfortable and fit together well."

Now that she's a senior, Willson apparently gives off the same vibe to newcomers.

"We did move up a sophomore up this year," Willson said. "She said her first impression of me was she was scared, but once she got to know me I'm like a big teddy bear."