Class A volleyball: O'Leary lifts Novi to milestone 3rd straight title
Battle Creek — Erin O’Leary had a week to remember, earning the title of Miss Volleyball Monday and then helping Novi win the Class A state championship for the third straight year Saturday afternoon at Kellogg Arena with a sweep (25-23, 25-9, 25-23) of Birmingham Marian.
Novi (56-3) became the first Class A school to win three straight state titles since Portage Northern, which strung together four straight titles from 1992-95.
O’Leary became the first Miss Volleyball award winner to go on to win a state championship since Alexandra Cocklin of Birmingham Marian in 2009. She will graduate next month before starting her college career at Michigan.
It wasn’t easy. Marian — unranked and 45-13-1 — looked on its way to ending Novi’s stretch of sweeps that started after its third and final loss of the season back on Sept. 16.
The opening set was tied at 19 before Northwestern-bound outside hitter Abryanna Cannon had kills on three of Novi’s final four points to win, 25-23.
Novi hit at just a .140 clip in the opening set, but then got back on track with a .448 hitting percentage in the second set with Cannon and Kathryn Ellison each getting five kills and O’Leary dishing out 13 of her match-high 33 assists.
“It makes it easy because we’re so close as a team, such a close unit that just focusing on each other and everyone on the bench and just the whole program makes it easy and takes the pressure off,” O’Leary said.
Said Ellison (12 kills, 14 digs): “In our gym we always say that pressure is a privilege and I really think that throughout the postseason we’ve really taken into that role and we know we have a huge target on our back and everyone’s looking to take down the back-to-back state champions, but we’ve just been focusing on what we’ve been doing all year long.”
Novi sixth-year Coach Jennifer Cottrill was impressed with Marian.
“Hats off to Marian, they played a great game and really pushed us further than we’ve been pushed this postseason for sure,” Cottrill said. “I think that was a team playing with no pressure and nothing to lose. And, for the first time in our postseason that was us out there playing with pressure, playing tight, playing tense and I think getting out of that, and winning, you could see us relax in the second set and start to get in our rhythm. Honestly, I think that was probably the match, winning that first set and being able to settle in.
“I kind of feel like we escaped a little bit in that match. This is different just because when we won in 2015 we were really young so we were looking forward to more. This senior class started in 2014 and ended now so I feel like it’s an end of an era with nine seniors graduating so it definitely feels different, more of an emotional thing. I feel almost elated for them and proud of them to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish.”
And, that State Finals experience paid off with O’Leary having 11 kills and nine digs in addition to her assists and senior libero Claire Pinkerton having 16 digs.
Marian first-year Coach Lauren Duquette talked with pride about her players. Marian lost in the state quarterfinals last season prior to her arrival.
“I was more impressed that we didn’t seem remotely frazzled that it was the state finals in a big room (arena) and playing against the defending state champions for the last three years,” Duquette said. “I thought we did a fantastic job of maintaining our composure, and I was very impressed by that. I think we looked a little defeated in that second set and that’s why I didn’t see so much of a battle and then we did a fantastic job again of dropping the negative body language and energy and trying to re-route ourselves on our path to getting back to basics.
“We wanted to win this game, but this team deserves a documentary or movie written about them, thinking of what they’ve done in 3½ months. They have made such incredible transformations on and off the court. I couldn’t ever talk enough about all of them.”