Faith guides Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central to state volleyball championship

St. Mary Catholic Central's volleyball team celebrates its state championship victory with coach Karen O'Brien, right, after a close, five-set victory over Schoolcraft. (Courtesy of Karen O'Brien)

Kestrels' coach, Karen O'Brien, battling cancer, motivates team to victory after falling just short last season

BATTLE CREEK — On the morning after her team's championship, Karen O’Brien woke up and asked her husband, “Was I dreaming?”

She went to Sunday Mass, and three of her players from the Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central volleyball team were there, too.

“We took the offering to the altar,” she said. Afterward, they agreed: “It doesn’t seem real.”

It hadn’t sunk in yet that she was the coach and they were on the roster that 24 hours earlier had won the MHSAA Division 3 volleyball championship. The evidence is in the trophy case.

A year earlier, they went through the nightmare of losing a five-set semifinal match to eventual state champ, Bronson.

“The fear got the best of us,” O’Brien said. However, the experience of playing in Kellogg Arena “with those lights and fans” was the motivation to go back. “We wanted this from day one.”

St. Mary Catholic Central volleyball coach Karen O'Brien hoists the state championship trophy.

It’s ironic that the No. 2-ranked Kestrels (FYI: a kestrel is a small falcon) would have to undergo another five-set test against No. 1 Schoolcraft, a team SMCC beat in 2014 for the school’s fifth state title. The others came in 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2012.

Schoolcraft won the first (27-25) and third (25-19) sets. SMCC bounced back for a 25-21 second set win and used a 10-2 run in the fourth to spark a 25-18 decision and force a fifth and deciding set.

O’Brien, in her fifth year at SMCC and with 30-plus years coaching at the high school and collegiate levels, has been going through her third bout with ovarian cancer. She completed her last round of IV chemo treatments in June. A scheduled surgery was cancelled.

“I looked forward to coaching because it gave me a chance to leave cancer behind,” she said.

What also strengthened her resolve, and that of the players who were aware of her dilemma, was a saying O’Brien came across in a tattoo parlor: “Allow your faith to be bigger than your fears.”

“When I was bald, I got a tattoo on my head with that saying, and that tattoo meant a lot for me at that moment,” she said.

It had special meaning for the players, too. They wore the same motto on their wrists.

“It served as a reminder to have faith in God, in your teammates, in our coaches and in our program,” O’Brien said.

SMCC built a 5-3 lead in the fifth set. Schoolcraft regained it 10-7.

Junior Mikayla Haut’s service ace, a Schoolcraft error, and a kill by Haut evened the score at 10.

Schoolcraft called a time out. O’Brien used the pause to put the game in perspective: “We are in a five-point game for a state title,” she told them.

Senior Samantha Michael’s block earned one point, Haut killed for another, junior Abbie Costlow’s service ace the third, a Schoolcraft attack error the fourth, and a match-winning block by Michael added up to a celebration for the Kestrels’ sixth state title.

Haut had 27 kills and 24 digs. Junior Anna Dean had 12 kills. Senior libera Payton Osborne also had 24 digs.  

Junior Grace Lipford had 25 assists and senior Sarah Reicker 24.

Faith was in charge of the Kestrels’ volleyball destiny this time.