MASON — High expectations have shadowed the Mason High School volleyball team for most of the new century.
Ten league, two district and two regional titles — in both Class A and B — in 15 years is no eye-rolling factoid, it’s been the standard by which the Bulldogs live. Mason was on the brink of capturing its first state championship last year, as it was in 2006 as a Class B school, when it fell in the Class A state quarterfinals.
Capturing the elusive accolade has fueled the veteran players and coaches, and it has them playing their best volleyball at the perfect time.
“You always hope you can get your girls to peak at the right time, and I think that’s what we’re doing right now,” Mason coach Elisa Zwick said. “We lost our libero, Rachel Cook, and our outside hitter, Taylor Delbridge, both of whom are playing in college right now. We had two important positions to work on.
“So at the beginning of our season I was trying different things.”
The Bulldogs (22-8-2) took a hit during that transition period when they fell to CAAC Red rival DeWitt in three sets. The victory put the Panthers in the driver’s seat for the league crown, and it put pressure on Mason to figure things out before the two teams met again.
In between meetings, however, some of Zwick’s newcomers started to grasp their new roles. And it was a freshman and a first-year player that stepped up when the Bulldogs rallied from a two-set deficit to beat then Class A No. 10-ranked DeWitt in five sets in the second meeting last week. Freshman Anna Walta had a match-high five aces and the 6-foot-2 Autumn Kissman contributed throughout the victory.
“It wasn’t that it was a slow start, I was trying different things out. …Trying different things, and that’s what I like the preseason for,” Zwick said. “One of my freshman was on the freshman team, and I brought her up right before the Mason Invitational. I spent all that time debating if I should leave her there or bring her up. I just went with it, and now she’s staying with us for good. And that’s (Walta). A tough, little freshman.
“I had a freshman that was playing outside, a senior playing outside, and I have a new kid this year, (Kissman), playing outside and this is her first year playing volleyball. She’s recovering from a meniscus tear, so there’s still a lot of learning she’s figuring out, but she’s had great growth.”
The victory evened the league race between Mason and DeWitt, as both teams are 6-1, and put the Bulldogs on pace to capture their fifth straight conference championship. But most importantly, the gritty, comeback win prepared them for the win-or-go-home phase. Underclassmen got an early taste of what was to come, while the veterans stepped up in the most critical moment.
“Everyone was proud of what we did by coming back,” said senior Willow Martin, who is committed to Western Michigan University and had the match-winning kill against the Panthers. “I think that five-game win definitely exposed the younger kids to what an intense game was.”
This season, Mason has broken the season into stages or as they call it, “process goals.” In past years, Zwick has had her team outline achievements they hope to reach, but this season she had them take it moment by moment.
It’s something she picked up in college while playing under former Michigan State volleyball coach Chuck Erbe.
“We don’t just put win league title, state title,” she said. “We have different types of goals, smaller goals. This year, we really looked at it differently. Just figuring out what are the small things we need to do. …Winning comes in steps and comes with meeting goals and setting new goals. If you just set the high goal, and everyone sets that, everyone is going to fail except for four teams.”
Everyone knows the expectations and, in case they forget, they are plastered on a banner a few feet away from where they practice. But the Bulldogs also understand it’s a process. So they’ll just keep chugging along and hope in the end they do something no team before them has done.
“We want to keep high expectations. When you keep high expectations you’ll have great things come as an outcome,” said senior Erin McDermott, who is committed to Central Connecticut University. “Coach is here helping us and she knows the game so well. …In the end, it just falls into place.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.