Gielczyk: Pentwater in Midst of a Mini-Dynasty
It’s an unwritten rule in sports that you never look too far ahead, and don’t take the next opponent lightly.
Focus on taking care of the business in front of you and then move on.
That’s especially true of the post-season tournaments, which all too often can be the ruin of many best laid plans.
Surprises typically jump up and snare someone every year.
But you can’t really blame fourth-year Pentwater girls volleyball coach Kerry Newberg if she can’t help peaking ahead to the Class D regional tournament and a likely rematch with the Falcons’ protagonist, Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, which has beaten the Falcons in the regional tournament the last three years in a row.
The Falcons are hoping this is the year they finally end that string, if they meet up with the Irish again, that is.
Pentwater completed a perfect run in the Western Michigan D League by rolling through the regular season undefeated and then sweeping everyone again in the league tournament in Bear Lake on Saturday, Oct. 15 en route to its second straight outright league title. The Falcons shared the league title with Big Rapids Crossroads Academy two years ago.
Just how dominant the Falcons were this season is reflected in the fact that they did not lose a single set, either in the regular season or the conference tournament. That’s comparable to a pitcher throwing a perfect game every time out.
An impressive feat, to be sure.
"They dig a lot of balls up, and they serve the ball really well," Newberg said. "A lot of teams can’t handle our serve. The first two teams we played in the conference tournament we didn’t even rotate all the way around.
"I had servers that served 10, 12 points in a row. So they’re serving the ball really tough. The teams can’t bump the ball up and get an offense going. And when they do a lot of it’s a free ball so we can hit right back at them."
It’s developed into a mini-dynasty that can be directly attributed to Newberg being able to keep a core group of players together for four years, during which time only three have graduated.
Pentwater being such a small school allows Newberg to bring up eighth graders to play on the varsity and so she’s coached some of the players four years in a row and they’re not even seniors yet.
"They keep progressing and keep getting better and better, which is nice," Newberg said. "One of my strong hitters who’s a senior this year, Linnea McDonough, I’ve had her since she’s been a freshman and she’s been good since she’s been a freshman but now she’s a notch above. Taylor Wilkinson is only a junior and I’ve had her on varsity for four years.
"I graduated a strong outside hitter last year, and my setter. But I’ve really had girls step right into those roles this year. (For the eighth graders) it’s more just getting those younger players experience because most of them have just come off a middle school season to a faster paced varsity season.
"Just trying to get past that is the bigger struggle. It takes about a month for those kids to get used to that faster paced game."
McDonough, the team’s middle hitter, has been battling injury since before the season started which limited the amount of time she’s seen the floor. She had to sit the first five or six dates, and was only for limited action. She didn’t do any swinging at all.
Despite only able to cut loose for the last five or six dates, she’s still head and shoulders above anyone else in the conference according to Newberg.
Usually a middle hitter, Wilkinson was moved over to the left side and has flourished there. She’s also a consistent server, missing only a total of five or six serves this season. Her height has also been an asset, helping with the Falcons’ left side blocking.
Julia Hall, a third-year sophomore, plays left side but filled in for McDonough in the middle and "can jump out of the gym" says Newberg. She’s also an outstanding track athlete, qualifying for the MHSAA state finals as a freshman.
"She’s really quick and she can jump so she helps us on the block," Newberg said. "She can get above the net and she’s also a really good passer."
Pentwater will face the same conference teams in the districts which start next week, and Newberg knows that her biggest challenge is guarding against her players thinking they just have to show up and the title is theirs guaranteed.
But this bunch of Falcons is looking for far more.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News.