Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central High School volleyball coach Diane Tuller ranks the 2008 season as the most challenging, yet one of the most satisfying.
While Tuller has turned the SMCC program into a perennial powerhouse, only four seniors returned this season, and a rebuilding year was expected. And while the Kestrels struggled to stay above the .500 mark for most of the season, they still made a return trip to the Class C state final four.
"There were times when I was frustrated, and then there were times when I was excited," said Tuller, who was named the state's coach of the year by the Volleyball Coaches Association of America. "We would play well and then we would play terrible. It was challenging. It was tough figuring out where we were."
SMCC made it through an up-and-down regular season with a 20-19-4 record entering the postseason. But the Kestrels then made a remarkable run to the state semifinals before losing to second-ranked Calumet. St. Mary fell 22-25, 25-18, 25-20, 25-18 to Calumet (52-4-1) on Nov. 20 in Battle Creek, Mich.
SMCC finished with a 26-20-4 record.
"We had to fight all the way through," Tuller said. "People do know we have a good program and that helps. I always tell the girls that it is a plus that other teams are afraid of us."
Tuller led SMCC to state championships in 2003 and 2007. Her teams have been to the state semifinals five out of the last six years.
But the team that won a state title in March, 2007, graduated eight seniors. However, the Kestrels still reached the semifinals in the fall of 2007. This year, the team had to replace seven seniors.
"In the last two seasons, we lost 15 seniors," Tuller said. "That is a lot to replace. We lost a lot of talent and leadership."
Tuller said five of those players were named to the all-state team and now are playing in college.
"Those two years we had very talented players," she said. "We expected this to be a rebuilding season in the sense that it would take a while to find ourselves.
"We struggled to stay above .500," she said. "But as long as we were getting better, that was OK with me."
Tuller said her four seniors grew into leadership positions. She said her two captains, middle hitter Kelsey Huntoon and setter Danielle Handler, adjusted well as the season went along.
"It was difficult. It took us a bit longer to gel," Tuller said. "We've only had two setters in the last eight years. So we had to ask Danielle, who has not been a setter since she was a sophomore, to adjust. She did a great job developing."
Tuller said Huntoon was a starter on the team that reached the state semis last year.
"We expected her to bring the rest of the kids along," Tuller said.
Senior hitters Carlie Giarmo and Samantha Zdanowski also stepped up, she said. Junior Kristen Drabek already had experience coming into this season, while younger players Michelle DeMarco and Shelbi Lisecki gathered valuable playing time this year.
"We may have been 20-19 going into district, but we play a very competitive schedule," Tuller said. "We never got blown away by anyone. We played competitive volleyball. We kept working on things."
Tuller said her young team may have been intimidated by living up to the expectations of a program that is steeped in tradition.
"They may have been a little afraid," Tuller admitted. "There is a tradition at our school. They may have been afraid to be the team that let everyone down. They just had to realize what they were capable of."
In 11 years at SMCC, Tuller has won two state titles and her have captured eight district and six regional crowns. Tuller has more than 400 wins in her career and earned the Michigan coach of the year award in October.
"It was an award for the program," Tuller said. "I'm not big on personal awards. They recognized our program. I have had great kids for 11 seasons. That is why I coach. I've been blessed with good players and good parents. I have a great coaching staff and a great administration."
Tuller first coached at St. Mary when it was an all-female school in the 1970s and known as St. Mary Academy. She also has coached at Monroe Community College and was a junior varsity coach at Ida High School. She also spent several years as an official. She said she wanted to bring stability to an SMCC volleyball program that had seen a lot of coaching turnover in the '90s. "The key to our program is our competitive schedule," Tuller said.
With just more than 400 students, Tuller said SMCC has a remarkable tradition of athletic excellence.
"The school is strong in football, basketball, softball, and track and field," Tuller said. "We have a sense of pride in our program."
Tuller said the turning point this year came in the regular season-ending tournament at Bedford. The Kestrels played right along with a very strong Class A team from Flushing.
"At that point, I think they realized what they could do," Tuller said.
SMCC beat Hanover-Horton 3-1 in the regional semifinals and knocked out Adrian Madison 3-0 in the regional final.
In the state quarterfinals, SMCC beat St. Louis, 26-24, 21-25, 25-21, 25-22 on Nov. 18 in Springport.
Despite strong games from Drabek, Huntoon, DeMarco, Lisecki, Giarmo, and Handler, SMCC fell 3-1 in the state semis. Drabek led the Kestrels with 16 kills and Huntoon had 11. Handler finished with 47 assists.
Tuller said she will have a young team again next year. But she said the freshmen team went 42-5. Six freshmen also were moved up to the junior varsity team.
"I think we have a good, talented group coming up," she said.
While another "rebuilding season" is unlikely, Tuller said this season the program reloaded in impressive fashion.
"It is satisfying. Every team that I coach has a different reason why they are special to me," Tuller said. "It was exciting to see these kids realize they could do it."
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