Briggs plays match of her life, as No. 2 Lake Orion knocks off No. 1 Mercy, returns to finals for first time since 2011
BATTLE CREEK — Paige Briggs picked a perfect time to go completely out of her mind.
The Lake Orion senior had the match of her life in perhaps the program’s biggest win, recording 43 kills as the No. 2 Dragons beat No. 1 Farmington Hills Mercy in five sets in the Division 1 semifinals at Kellogg Arena on Friday.
“It’s amazing. It feels so awesome. There’s no words for it,” Briggs said, acknowledging she’d never played better. “I don’t think so. Best game of my life.”
The 20-25, 25-18, 27-25, 25-20, 15-13 win sends the Dragons (67-6) on to the D1 title match for the first time since 2011. They’ll play at 2 p.m. on Saturday, facing either No. 7 Rockford or No. 8 Northville.
It’s been nearly a decade of disappointing postseasons since that last trip, and all of that got washed away with the win Friday.
“It makes up for everything that happened from 2012 on. Not getting as far as we wanted to get. That win right there? Probably nobody except for us thought we were going to pull that off,” Lake Orion coach Tony Scavarda said. “I mean, they were the best team, No. 1, really from start to finish of this high school season. We knew that if we were going to beat them, we had to play pretty much close to perfect. We didn’t play close to perfect, but we played pretty darned good, and got it done. Very proud of these guys.”
For the Marlins (52-3), it was a disappointing near-repeat of last year’s semifinal loss to rival Marian, when they came out strong, and then lost steam.
“I think it was just our state of mind in that game. It happened last year. We blew Marian out of the water in that first set, and they came back and won the next four, and that was a tough loss for us. I guess this year we just had that same mentality. We didn’t have our foot on the gas pedal the whole night. And that’s what we needed to do, and we just didn’t execute on that tonight,” said Mercy junior Jessica Mruzik, who finished with 27 kills. “We focused on that pretty much the whole season, especially after that first match. We kept saying ‘Keep your foot on the gas, don’t let up, make them play their hardest, and make things easy on our side.’ And we just didn’t execute our mentality.”
The Dragons started out slowly enough that Scavarda was worried about their ability to handle the jitters that come with the big stage. Especially since he’d seen those jitters in effect in a pre-match practice.
“Very. When we went across the street to warm up, before we came in here, I think it was probably the worst practice I’d ever seen. No one could pass the ball, and we looked so jittery, I was like ‘Ohh …’ And then we started the game like that, as far as ball control. We were very jittery,” the coach said, admitting that finally rinsing those jitters out and gaining momentum late in the first set was key.
“Yeah, that was basically all we were talking about in the second half of that first set was ‘Hey, if we can just start playing well right now, create a little bit of momentum.’ The second set, we played great. All of a sudden, the ball control was there, which it wasn’t in the first set. We knew once we could get our ball control going a little bit, we could compete with them at the net.”
Once the Dragons started to gain momentum, the Marlins couldn’t get it back. That was something the players could feel.
“I felt something different. I felt like every time they went into a little huddle, they were shutting down, and that’s when I really pushed for the team to bring up the energy so we could kill their energy even more,” Lake Orion setter Wren Macaulay said. “It’s just a chain effect. That’s when we really started feeling like ‘We can do this. We’re going to do this.’ We just kept saying ‘See you’re going to win, and you’ll win.’”
It helped that Briggs heated up to a scorching level. At one point, she had five straight kills, as the Dragons closed out the fourth set with a 25-20 win, forcing a Set 5. And as soon as that started, Macaulay went right back to the hottest hitter.
“As a setter, I go to whoever is getting kills, and if she’s hot, I’m setting her. If she’s getting kills, I’m going to that person. I mean, I always want to mix it up a little bit, but they weren’t stopping her at that point. So I don’t see any reason not to set her.”
Briggs hit .429 on the match, a huge outlier, considering the Dragons hit .197 as a team.
“We just didn't have an answer for her,” Mruzik said.
Macaulay had 53 assists, 12 digs and three aces, and Ciara Livingway had 21 digs and five of the Dragons’ 10 aces.
The Marlins were frustrated by more than the floor-blanketing defense the Dragons threw out there.
“They played a great game, but it’s just hard when the things the refs are calling on both teams are things that are usually never addressed, and it switches up momentum and the flow of the game,” Mruzik said, “so I think that was tough on both ends, for both teams.”
Coach Loretta Vogel vocalized those frustrations with the officials after the match.
“I want to make it real clear. For women’s athletics, I thought this was an embarrassment. To have these officials, with what they called, for women that practice every day in the gym, it was an embarrassment. I would like to say even more: Michigan High School Athletic (Association) should be embarrassed hiring people of that caliber. Who calls five seconds on a serve? It’s an embarrassment,” Vogel said. “Just saying. Lake Orion won, and I’m happy with that, however … I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve endured a lot. I’m taking nothing away from Lake Orion. We know when we’ve been there. I think Michigan High School Athletic (Association) needs to do a better job. Watching what went on earlier, it was really sad. … We can make tactical adjustments, and so can Tony, but there were other interferences that would be very, very difficult for young women to make a change.”
It wasn't a one-sided criticism, either.
“I was very disappointed with the officiating at this stage of the tournament," Scavarda said. "A lot of bad calls were made on both sides of the net. The R1 was extremely inconsistent.”
Vogel's son and assistant coach Andrew Thompson was also critical of the venue.
“I’ve been around volleyball for 34 years, and we were talking about this as we arrived. Loretta’s been to the final four 10 times, and I’ve been to every single one of those except two. I’ve won a state championship myself. It is embarrassing — and I’m calling on MHSAA — it is embarrassing for female athletics in 2018,” Thompson said. “Boys football is at Ford Field. And I get it, it’s money. Basketball gets Breslin. Girls get Kellogg Arena, and the treatment that female athletics gets is absolutely embarrassing, and it needs to change.”