When he took over the Onaway volleyball program nearly 10 years ago, Steve Watson knew there was a lot of work to do.
In his inaugural season, the Cardinals won just nine games, were plagued with injuries and Watson admits he was a young coach with a lot to learn.
Fast forward a decade later and the results are quite different: Watson leads a Cardinals team that continues to make history with each win, has a higher set of expectations and sits two wins away from a state championship.
The Onaway volleyball team celebrates its quarterfinal win over Crystal Falls Forest Park on Tuesday. The Cardinals will face Battle Creek St. Philip in a Class D semifinal today.
"I have a good group of girls who buy into what I'm trying to do, which is outwork everybody," Watson said.
No. 5Onaway (48-4-3) will take another step toward a state title today when it plays Battle Creek St. Philip in a Class D semfinal at 2 p.m. at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek. Mendon will play Beal City at 3:45 p.m. and the two winners will meet on Saturday at 10 a.m.
It's been a whirlwind month already for the Cardinals who won the school first ever regional title last week and vanquished Crystal Falls Forest Park in three games in a quarterfinal on Tuesday.
Class D volleyball semifinal
Onaway (48-4-3) vs.
Battle Creek St. Philip (71-2-1)
2 p.m. today, Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek
As the stakes get higher, the Cardinals seem to rise to the occasion, but their biggest task lies ahead of them as they prepare to face a team that's been in the Final Four 34 times since 1976 and has played for a state championship in each of the last 11 seasons.
In contrast to Watson, St. Philip coach Vicky Groat already had a solid foundation to work from when she took over as the Fighting Tigers' coach 15 years ago. Her mother Sheila Guerra guided St. Philip to nine state titles, giving Groat a lot to live up to when she took the helm.
Since then Groat has lived up her own expectations and helped keep the Fighting Tigers among the top teams in the state. She's guided St. Philip to seven state titles, including the last six in a row, with all but one of them coming by a sweep.
Though state titles have become an annual standard, the thrill of making it to Battle Creek never gets old for Groat.
It's special every year. It's exciting," Groat said. "I never take it for granted because there's a lot of teams that don't make it."
This year's Fighting Tigers team holds a 71-2-1 record and features a number of the state's players including senior outside hitter Amanda McKinzie, who was recently named 2012 Miss Volleyball. McKinzie, who is headed to Virginia Tech, has nearly 2,500 career kills and is going for her fourth state title.
Junior outside hitter Sierra Hubbard Neil and setter Lanae Lesiow are among St. Philip's other players who earned all-state honors last season.
It will be a big task for the Cardinals who pride themselves on solid defense and outworking their opponents. Since Watson took over, the Cardinals have won five district titles in seven years and have had more than 10 players selected all-state in the last seven years.
"I take a lot of pride in what we've been able to accomplish," Watson said.
Groat has seen Onaway on film and expects a battle, though Onaway might be considered something of an underdog.
"They're relentless. They're not going to sit back and say, 'Oh, it's St. Philip, they're the defending state champions, they're No. 1.' They're going to keep coming,"Groat said. "If we can match their defensive intensity and get our offense rolling, we should do well."
Onaway is led on defense by libero Emily Estep and a handful of players have shown the ability to step up when the pressure is on. Offensively, Mariah Ehrke and Devin Bristley will led a front row of Onaway players looking to hand the Fighting Tigers their first postseason loss this season.
Ehrke led Onaway with nine kills against Crystal Falls and Bristley had eight kills.
The Fighting Tigers have the ability to overwhelm teams once they get their offense going, but Groat says her team will also be motivated to leave its mark on the school, especially with seven seniors graduating.
"The kids don't want to let the program down. They don't want to be that group of kids that didn't make it to the state finals. There's a lot of pressure, but there's a lot of pride too," Groat said.