After a brief four-year absence from the state final four, Bedford is back in the semifinals for the third straight season.
Coach Jodi Manore, now in her 28th season, has built a true powerhouse in Temperance. The Mules captured state titles in 1998, 2001, and 2005, and have been state runners-up four times.
But Bedford experienced a rare dry spell before returning to the final four in 2010. The Mules made it back again last year but saw their season end in the semis for the second straight season.
Bedford (64-12-3) squares off against No. 8-ranked Grand Haven (46-16-1) in a Class A state semifinal today at 5:30 p.m. at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, Mich. The title game is set for 2 p.m. Saturday.
“It's looking good right now and for the foreseeable future,” Manore said. “A couple of years ago the goal was just to get there because it had been awhile and the kids didn't really know what they were missing out on. Now the kids have gotten there and they have that incentive.
“Now we want to go and win. We're not satisfied with just being there.”
“This is my third year going to the state semis, and every time we've lost. So now we're ready to win states,” Hays said. “Our goal all along has been to win the whole thing. We have a great team, and I think we can do it. We have great chemistry.”
The Mules also have a well-balanced attack with scoring generated from several positions and players.
“We don't have that one real standout,” Manore said. “It's just a good group. We can go to any position and score from any one of our hitters. We don't have one rotation where we are weak or have to worry about. We have different stat leaders.”
Sophomore middle hitter Nicole Rightnowar is one of the leaders in kills. She has a .268 hitting percentage and averages 2.3 kills per game. Rightnowar also leads the team with 183 blocks.
Senior outside hitter Sophia Marciniak has come on strong after being rotated in and out as a junior. She averages 2.6 kills per game and has a .268 hitting percentage.
Sophomore Kayla Gwozdz has improved each week and is coming off an ACL injury she suffered in April. She is hitting .283 and has 2.7 kills per game.
Senior right side hitter Taylor Foster has a team-high .305 hitting percentage. Foster, who played basketball in previous seasons, averages 2.4 kills per game and is second on the team with 148 blocks.
“She's a lefthander, and she jumps out of the gym,” Manore said.
Manore said all four hitters have similar kill totals.
“We have different options as an attacking team,” Hays said. “We know if one girl is having a bad day, others will step up. Our best weapon is our attack hitters.”
Junior setter Mackenzie Andrews has 1,406 assists. Senior Lexi Curtis, a transfer from Alaska, has 92 aces.
Junior Taylor Purcell, a middle hitter, has made great improvement.
Senior defensive specialist Lindsey Shepherd, a four-year member of the varsity, is adept at passing and digging. Junior defensive specialist Maddie Andres has a tough jump serve that has “wicked top spin,” according to her coach.
Bedford knocked off Farmington Hills Mercy three games to one in a state quarterfinal on Tuesday. The Mules have been unranked for most of the season. “We don't pay too much attention to that,” Manore said.
The Mules' task today will be to shut down Grand Haven's 6-foot-5 middle hitter Abby Cole. The senior will play at the University of Michigan.
“They are ranked, and they have an extremely tall girl in the middle that is a Miss Volleyball candidate,” Manore said. “We will have to try to work around her.”
Hays, a four-year starter, has already etched her name in the school's record books. She has the most digs in a season (1,322) and in a career in school history.
“That's a high honor,” Hays said. “You look at that record board and you're so happy to be a part of that.”
Many of the players on that record board also have a state title to their credit.
“I want that more than ever,” Hays said. “This is the best opportunity I've had so far. We have a huge advantage because we've been there before. We know how to play under the lights and with the big crowd.”
Manore, who led the Mules to the final four 17 years in a row (1990 to 2006), knows a state title contender when she sees one.
“We have as good a chance as anyone,” Manore said. “There are just four teams left. Anyone can get hot and have a big day. It's anybody's to win.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.