Top volleyball teams: Will Farmington Hills Mercy finally break through this year?

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Farmington Hills Mercy's Julia Bishop, left, and Jess Mruzik

Farmington Hills – After falling short of a state championship in consecutive trips to Battle Creek for the volleyball finals, Farmington Hills Mercy hopes 2019 will be the year for a breakthrough.

In 2017 Mercy lost to Catholic League rival Birmingham Marian in the state semifinals, with Marian losing to Novi in the title match.

Last year Mercy won the Catholic League title over Marian before losing to eventual state champion Lake Orion in a state semifinal to finish 52-3.

Mercy has the talent to get the job done this time around, led by the 1-2 punch of 6-foot-2 outside hitter Jess Mruzik (Michigan) and junior setter Julia Bishop (Michigan State), along with a strong supporting cast which includes 5-11 junior outside hitter Kaylin Collins (Charleston), senior defensive specialists Genevieve Sale and Camille Compton, and junior libero Maddi Malecki.

Mercy is The Detroit News’ No. 1 team in the metro area with Marian ranked No. 2. The teams will play Tuesday night at Marian.

More: Top volleyball players: Mercy's Jess Mruzik gets a boost from international competition

Mercy was 22-1 while Mruzik was in Egypt, helping the U.S. Girls Youth National Team to the U18 World Championship in Cairo, with Mruzik named tournament MVP.

“We’re going to be talented this year, have three seniors and five juniors and everyone played last year,” said Mercy 12th-year coach Loretta Vogel. “Everyone knows about Jess, and then we have our setter back in Julia Bishop. She just runs everything and for me; she sees the game and makes it happen. And we’re fortunate that we have two strong middles in Charli Atiemo and Ellen Tisko.”

Vogel says Mercy’s speed and experience makes the team a state title contender.

“The difference when you watch all of these girls is they’re not heavy-footed, they jump well and their speed separates this entire group,” Vogel said. “These kids are also experienced and you can see the difference when they play. They’re older, they’ve put a lot of time in the game. They read really well so they can anticipate what the other team is going to do.”

Sale agrees, saying: “Our goal is to get back to Battle Creek and win the state title this time and I feel we have talent and team chemistry, which is both so important. We get along super well and we have a lot of leaders. We’re such a veteran team, have a lot of experience, people who have been on the team since their freshman year.”

2. Birmingham Marian (Division 1, 44-10)

Marian returns four starters from a team that lost to Mercy in the regional finals.

Marian – which got off to a 14-0 start this season – is led by 6-0 sophomore outside hitter Ava Brizard, along with 5-9 senior outside hitter Christine Audette, 6-2 sophomore middle blocker Sarah Sylvester and sophomore middle blocker Tatum Casper.

“Nine of those 10 losses were to three of the teams in the Final Four,” said Marian second-year coach Mayssa Bazzi, who guided Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard to an unbeaten record (42-0) on its way to the Class B state title in 2015. “Ava Brizard just brings this energy and effort to every practice and to every match to where she’s contagious.

 “I feel we have great team chemistry. The kids play for each other. They have great attitudes and great work ethic. We don’t have any real weakness at any position.”

Freshman Ava Sarafa is Marian’s setter with Sofia Espinosa also running the offense.

3. Rochester Hills Stoney Creek (Division 1, 42-7-2)

Stoney Creek returns a talented group from last year’s team, which won the OAA Red Division championship and advanced to the regional finals, losing to Lake Orion.

Stoney Creek has opened the season by winning the Novi Invitational and Fraser Invitational.

Stoney Creek is led by Cornell-bound outside hitter Kate Stration, 6-2 junior middle hitter Ainsley Guse, right side hitter Katie Yatooma, 5-11 sophomore outside hitter Sydney Tomlak and setter Ella Markevics.

Libero Halie Lieffers, who doubles as a setter, and middle hitter Ashley Gajdzik are also key contributors.

4. Ann Arbor Skyline (Division 1, 33-10)

Skyline showcases Miss Volleyball finalist in 6-1 senior outside hitter Kendall Murray (Michigan).

Skyline reached the regional finals last season, losing to Northville, and one of its goals is to get back to the regional final to win that match and compete during the final week of the season.

“My goal was to go out and be aggressive and beat teams that we haven’t beaten before, and we beat (Temperance) Bedford for the first time in school history this year,” said Skyline coach Chris Cristian. “I’m excited about this team and right now.”

Skyline was off to a 17-5 record during the first month of the season with 6-1 freshman outside hitter Harper Murray, Kendall’s younger sister, also playing well. Senior Stacie Warner, who played defensive specialist last year, has moved over to setter due to an injury to Lauren Lee. Senior libero McKenna Pheifer and junior middle hitter Sasha Akuezue are also key contributors.

5. Detroit Country Day (Division 2, 24-16-5)

Kim Lockhart started three freshmen last year, helping Country Day win a district title before a loss in the regionals to North Branch.

Big things are expected now from 6-1 middle hitter Serena Nyambio, 6-0 outside hitter Morgan Lockhart and 5-11 setter Nyla Muskobin with a year of experience under their belts.

Junior middle hitter Ryann Tolbert, 6-0 freshman outside hitter/middle blocker Laurece Abraham and setter Paige Elliot are also key contributors, helping DCD get off to a 13-5 start.

“We’re very athletic and our frontline is 5-11 and above,” said Lockhart, who is in her fifth year as head coach at DCD after a long career at Grosse Pointe North. “Our defense is really strong too, with my lone senior Alexis Nardicchio and junior Calihan Bearden leading the way.”

6. Clarkston (Division 1, 34-12)

Clarkston returns a strong nucleus from last year’s team, which was beaten by state champion Lake Orion in the district semifinals.

Clarkston – which opened the season at 16-4, winning the Oxford tourney with a win over Lake Orion in the final – is led by senior outside hitter Jordan Newblatt (Marist), junior outside hitter Claire Nowicki and sophomore libero Summer Jidas.

“Jordan and Claire are both very good players, six-rotation players that are very strong offensively and defensively,” said Clarkston coach Kelly Pinner.

7. Bloomfield Hills (Division 1, 28-13-1)

Northwestern-bound 6-3 setter Alexa Rousseau is among several starters back for coach Larry Wyatt’s team.

Other key players include 6-0 right side hitter Brooke Bosart, 5-7 sophomore outside hitter Ava Petrucci and senior libero Noelle Siwek.

“Alexa is playing at such a high level and she has become a great leader for us,” said Wyatt of Rousseau, who is a Miss Volleyball finalist. “When we’re healthy we’re tough to beat.”

8. Brighton (Division 1, 35-10-4)

Miss Volleyball finalist Celia Cullen is among five starters back from last year’s team, which lost to South Lyon in a district final.

Cullen, a 6-1 setter/outside hitter, will play at Michigan State. Senior outside hitter Elaine Halonen, 6-1 middle hitter Solana Hickinson, 5-11 middle blocker Sophia Mainhardt and junior setter Ashley L’Esperance are also key contributors.

“We have two really good setters and we’re deep on the front row both outside and in the middle,” Coach Scott Pitcher said.

9. Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (Division 2, 64-6)

Notre Dame Prep lost several key players from last year’s team, which reached the state championship match, including Miss Volleyball award winner Maddy Chinn and Miss Volleyball finalist Natalie Risi.

Still, Coach Betty Wroubel returns a strong group that includes all-state sophomore outside hitter/setter Aly Borellis, sophomore outside hitter Bianca Giglio, sophomore defensive specialist Josie Bloom and junior libero/defensive specialist Olivia Kowalkowski, who all gained valuable experience during last year’s tournament run.

Notre Dame Prep has gotten off to a 24-6 start with senior captain Emily Mohr and senior middle hitter/right side attacker Theresa Carrier also playing well.

10. Saline (Division 1, 29-12-2)

Saline is off to a 19-7-2 start with eight starters returning from last year’s team, including six starters.

Saline has a heavy hitter in Kaija Sydlowski, along with strong middle blockers in Reese Page and Emma Rigg. Other key players include junior setter Julia Blaney and junior libero Hannah Blaney.