Ann Arbor – Chris Cristian had big expectations for his Ann Arbor Skyline volleyball team this summer, then sophomore setter Lauren Lee suffered a season-ending leg injury in the opening month of the season.
It was then that Cristian turned to senior defensive specialist Stacie Warner and handed her the keys to run the offense at setter.
Warner has delivered to help not only save Skyline’s season, but to make it a historical one with its first regional title in program history, and now its first trip to the state finals in Battle Creek.
Skyline, 54-8 and ranked No. 10, will be an underdog Thursday at 6:30 p.m. when it plays Miss Volleyball award winner Jess Mruzik and top-ranked Farmington Hills Mercy (56-1) in a Division 1 state semifinal at Kellogg Arena.
This will be Mercy’s third straight Final Four appearance, losing to Catholic League rival Birmingham Marian in a semifinal in 2017 and losing in the semifinals to eventual state champion Lake Orion last season.
Instead of being intimidated, Warner is excited with the opportunity to play at Kellogg Arena with a state championship match spot on the line.
“It’s going to be incredibly fun, we’re all so excited,” Warner said. “We made lots of history, beat Bedford for the first time in school history, we were regional champs for the first time and now we’re just trying to go as far as we can.”
The state finals will get underway with Division 4 action at Thursday with Southfield Christian taking on defending state champion Mendon at noon, followed by Leland vs. Rudyard.
Defending Division 1 state champion Lake Orion (39-15-2), which lost 10 seniors and returned just one starter from last year’s team, will face Lowell (54-3) at 4:30 with Skyline vs. Mercy to follow.
Warner recalls when Cristian came up to her with the offer to play at setter.
“She (Lee) fractured her leg, it was a bad break, so it was two weeks into the season,” Warner said. “It was definitely shocking, obviously no one was expecting it, and you have to do what’s best for the team and at that moment someone had to fill that spot and I had the most experience setting at this level.
“I wanted to fill her spot well because she’s a great setter and make her proud, kind of play for her, so I think it was more motivation and drive than anything for me. We just came in with the mindset that we’d do what we’d have to do to get there (Battle Creek).”
Skyline is led by the Murray sisters, 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter and Michigan-bound Kendall Murray – a Miss Volleyball finalist – and 6-1 freshman outside hitter Harper Murray. Middle hitters Sophie Schrag and Sasha Akuezue have also played well.
“All of them are amazing hitters and they all know where to go,” Warner said. “We’ve all trained so hard. At the beginning it was really hard to get our connection down with the middle hitters, just because different setters it takes different coordination and timing between the people. We really had to work hard on that, and it’s obviously showing off really well.”
Now, Warner and Skyline will be going up against one of the top setters in the state in Mercy’s 6-0 junior Julia Bishop.
Warner said Skyline doesn’t mind being the underdog.
“No problem,” Warner said. “We’re just going to go out there and give it everything we’ve got, just leave everything on the court because for some of us it’s our last time playing. Really, we’re just looking to do everything we can, just use what we have and implement all that work that we’ve been doing all season and let it show.”
Cristian knows this run wouldn’t be possible without the play of Warner.
“Last year Stacie was a setter and she was going to be our defensive specialist this year and then she stepped in and did the job (after Lee’s injury),” Cristian said. “It wasn’t pretty at the beginning, but she worked really hard throughout the season to make the connections with the outsides and the middles. She’s done a marvelous job.”
Division 2 and 3 semifinals will be Friday with state title matches in all four divisions decided on Saturday.
All semifinals and finals at Kellogg Arena, Battle Creek
Mendon (38-9-6) vs. Southfield Christian (29-7-4), noon
Rudyard (35-4-3) vs. Leland (43-14-3), 2 p.m.
Final: Saturday, 10 a.m.
Lake Orion (39-15-2) vs. Lowell (54-3), 4:30 p.m.
Ann Arbor Skyline (54-8) vs. Farmington Hills Mercy (56-1), 6:30 p.m.
Final: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Saginaw Valley Lutheran (40-8-5) vs. Schoolcraft (47-6-1), noon
Monroe St. Mary CC (48-2) vs. Beaverton (46-1-1), 2 p.m.
Final: Saturday, noon
Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (48-10-2) vs. Lake Odessa Lakewood (39-12), 4:30 p.m.
Kingsley (58-7-3) vs. Grand Rapids Christian (44-3), 6:30 p.m.
Final: Saturday, 4 p.m.