The Senior Night atmosphere in the Otsego High School gymnasium Tuesday night was electric, and the host Knights showed everyone why they were the huge favorites to repeat as volleyball champions of the Suburban Lakes League.
The Knights rolled past Eastwood in three games and could claim the SLL title with a win over Elmwood on Thursday. But here's the catch: first-year coach Jeff Beck and Eastwood only needed to defeat Lake on Thursday to share the league championship with Otsego.
Not bad, considering the Eagles were 12-10 last year and have just one senior on their roster. Eastwood last won an SLL title in 2005.
"The loss did not take away from what we have accomplished this year," said Beck, the former coach at Perrysburg.
Entering this week, the Eagles were ranked 19th in the Division II state coaches poll. They took an 18-2 overall record and 10-0 SLL mark into Tuesday's match at Otsego, which lost to Eastwood in five games earlier this season.
Beck said he is "beyond surprised" at his new team's success.
"They had a new staff coming in and we have changed everything," he said. "Usually there is a learning curve. I've only had these girls since May. People wanted us to improve from fourth place (in the SLL) last year and maybe contend for the title. We're in contention of winning it. They've responded to a whole new staff and a whole new training.
"I was looking at maybe five or six losses and maybe going for second in the league. I was thinking, 'let's get more than 12 wins and shoot for second place.'"
Eastwood's only other losses this season came against host Central Catholic in an early-season tournament and to 17th-ranked Huron (Division III) last Saturday.
Beck brought an entirely new coaching philosophy with him from Perrysburg, where he guided the Yellow Jackets to a berth in the 2006 Division I state final four. The Jackets, who were 79-29 in Beck's five years there, lost to top-ranked and eventual champion Cincinnati Mother of Mercy in the state semifinals.
Beck said he has been impressed with the Eagles' work ethic more than anything.
"They work hard," he said. "They're three-sport athleties. They are farming community kids and they don't get to specialize in volleyball. We have big, tall girls who are athletic. They just needed a little coaching and tweaking here and there. These girls are good and they have the potential to be just as good as I had at Perrysburg, but they don't know they're good. They're so coachable."
Beck's assistant coaches are Amanda Ankney, Laura Heringhaus and Chelsey Meek, who played libero at Bowling Green State University. A 2008 BGSU graduate, Meek led the Mid-American Conference in digs her last two years and was a second-team All-MAC player her senior year.
"Chelsey is in charge of the defensive end and our serve receive," Beck said. "Having her knowledge and playing in college, it's nice having her here. Our girls are running plays. We have serve receive plays and free-ball plays, things that they've never run before. And we run a quicker offense all around."
Eastwood is led by sophomore Courtney Rolf and juniors Whitney Hoodlebrink, Katie Primeau, Vicky Bruning and Christine Foster. Primeau and Foster are team captains.
Rolf, a 6-0 middle attacker, was an honorable mention All-SLL selection as a freshman, when she played outside hitter. Through 20 matches this season, Rolf had a team-high 42 blocks, 29 service aces, 185 digs and 186 kills.
"We moved her (to middle attacker) because I believe she does better there and performs better there for our team," Beck said. "At first she wanted to be outside, and she was a little disappointed, but once she saw she was getting more kills in the middle, she came around. She said she would go wherever she could help the team the best."
Hoodlebrink, a 5-11 outside hitter, has 207 kills, 30 aces, 193 digs and 22 blocks.
"I consider her our go-to player," Beck said. "She's main left side and plays all the way around. She never comes off the court. When we need a kill, we have to find her. She's the top high-jumper on the track team and it definitely shows in volleyball."
The 5-6 Primeau is the Eagles' "ball distributor," according to Beck. She has 20 aces, 21 kills and 552 assists in 20 matches.
"She just threw the ball up as a sophomore, but now she is a setter because she knows how to run and call an offense," Beck said. "I knew I had the hitters and the defense, but the setting department was my biggest concern at the beginning of the year. If I had to pick the most improved player on my team, it would be Katie. She has played beautifully."
Bruning, a middle hitter, has 112 kills and is second on the team with 39 blocks.
"The way our lineup is set, Vicky has to be our offensive leader," Beck said. "She becomes our go-to hitter when Whitney and Courtney are in the back row."
Foster, a setter on the junior varsity team last year, is now playing libero. She leads the team with 226 digs and has 27 aces.
"She's taken complete ownership of that position," Beck said. "She's really carrying our defense, along with her digs and her leadership. She's playing a position she didn't play last year and she's working hard at it."
Eastwood is the No. 1 seed at the Liberty Center sectional and has a bye in the first round. The Eagles will face either Wauseon or Defiance in the second round.