The juggernaut Bedford volleyball program appears to be stocked with the experience and talent to successfully defend its state title with its sights set on a fresh rival.
The Mules, reigning Class A champions, are 67-3 this season and looking for their 17th straight trip to the state semifinals. Bedford is loaded with nine seniors, including three four-year starters. Outside hitter Tara Breske, middle hitter Veronica Rood and outside hitter Lexi Leonhard helped lead the team last season to a third state title.
Bedford also won state crowns in 1998 and 2001 and has finished state runner-up four times.
Our expectation is clearly to defend, said coach Jodi Manore, who has guided the Mules for 21 seasons. We ve never shied away from making the state championship our goal. We re always talking about what needs to happen. They should know what to look out for.
Bedford won the Southeastern Conference title with a 10-0 record, its fifth crown in six years.
With its only losses this year coming at the hands of new rival East Kentwood, the Mules have a target in place. So far the teams have split six games. Bedford won on Jan. 21 and is without a loss since then.
At practice we get fired up and pretend the other side is East Kentwood, Breske said.
The teams have flip-flopped atop the Class A state poll, with each dropping to No. 2 after a loss. Bedford, which began the season ranked No. 1, currently is second.
All six [matches] have been very close. They have quite a few people back as well. They have a few kids who are heading to Michigan State, Manore said.
Rood, who signed with the University of Michigan last November, said it s a good, clean rivalry. She said the teams have similar styles and lineups.
Both teams are well-rounded, Rood said. We both have really strong setters and good defense and good hitters all around.
Breske admitted that it s hard to not focus on Kentwood despite the fact that the first time Bedford could face their nemesis again would be in the state semifinals.
We just have to remind ourselves to play one game at a time, she said.
Manore said both teams have the unusual ability to put a full lineup of talented athletes on the court at once.
I think our advantage over other schools is that we have six real solid position players, Manore said. Most teams have only three or four stars. They always get into a rotation that is weak.
Breske, who also is a standout in basketball and will play at Bowling Green State University next season, leads the Mules in kills with 497 and in digs with 463. Breske also has made an unbelievable recovery from two torn ACLs one in each leg.
Rood has the highest hitting percentage on the team (.405) and has made 395 digs.
Senior setter Emily Fahrer has 1,485 assists and leads the Mules in serving with 387 points.
Emily is a great setter. She runs our offense and keeps everything going, Manore said.
She also said seniors Stephanie Champine and Amy Zuccarell have elevated their games.
Zuccarell, a middle hitter, leads the team in blocks with 162. Champine is an outside hitter who has a save percentage of .387.
Leonhard, an outside hitter, is Bedford s top passer on serve receiving at 85 percent.
Jamie Swick is a senior defensive specialist, while Kelsey Cousino and Michelle Obert are seniors who provide depth off the bench. The team is rounded out by two juniors and a sophomore.
Our depth is our strength, Breske said. If someone is having an off- day, someone else will step up.
The other key element is that the majority of players have been familiar with the demands of the Bedford tradition.
Rood said Manore reminds the team everyday in practice that the goal is to win the state title again.
The ones that have been on varsity have learned to deal with the pressure, Rood said. We ve been under it since we were freshmen. We ve been there at state and we know what it feels like.
Breske said the pressure makes the team work even harder.
We ve been around it so long we know it is expected. We know what we have to do, Breske said.
Breske, who is a 6-0 post player in basketball, knows all too well about hard work. She was ranked the 23rd-best player in Michigan coming into her junior season, but tore her ACL in the second game. Breske came back late in the volleyball season to help the Mules win the title. But just three months later she tore her other ACL.
I just set goals to get back earlier than I needed to. I kept pushing myself. I had to be back for my team, Breske said. It s always in the back of my mind. But you can t dwell on it.
Breske was able to come back and play in eight basketball games last fall and said she was relieved when BGSU continued to show interest.
I was so glad to have their support through every step, she said. They helped me get through it.
Breske also said the core of the volleyball team, which has been playing together since the fifth grade, lent constant encouragement.
Most of us have been together the whole way through, Rood said. Being close definitely helps. Having that connection is a good thing. We re all positive with each other and we re here for each other.
Manore said this is one of her top teams, but that there is still a lot left to be determined.
We have an awful lot of talent. But we re still working to play with more consistency and playing at a high level all the time, she said.
The district begins March 4 and the regional on March 11.
But there is always the fear of an upset, Manore said. We don t want to look ahead to East Kentwood. I keep reminding them that a lot of [favorites] have been upset. Very seldom do teams repeat in any sport. I always talked about how everything has to fall into place. It s not just the team with best talent. There s injuries and luck and emotions.
Rood knows she wants to experience winning it all again.
That would be awesome for all of us together to go out with a state championship, Rood said.
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com or 419-724-6110.