By RON DEUTER
CRYSTAL FALLS - Forest Park is a win away from playing for a state volleyball title, but Thursday's semifinal match against Battle Creek St. Phillip might as well be for the crown.
In going up against St. Phillip Thursday, the Lady Trojans are facing a team that has won the Class D state championship seven straight seasons and a state-record 18 times overall. In fact, since the MHSAA state volleyball tournament began in 1976, St. Phillip has advanced to the Final Four in all but four seasons.
"They are a very well-rounded team," Forest Park coach Kim Bjork said. "They are a powerhouse.'
St. Phillip is led by outside hitter Sierra Hubbard-Neil, who was second in the Miss Volleyball Award voting Monday. She is committed to continue playing volleyball at Western Michigan.
Hubbard-Neil is the team's only returning starter from last year. She has played on the past three state title teams.
"We've been there as a school, but outside of Sierra, these girls haven't been on the court in this situation," St. Philip coach Vicky Groat told the Battle Creek Enquirer earlier this week. "Sierra is the one everyone knows, and everyone else has put in their time, and it's their time to prove they are just as good as the girls in the past. I think they want to prove to themselves and everyone else out there... after we lost those girls from last year. They are a loose group. A really enjoyable group of girls."
"It's going to be tough match, no doubt about it," Bjork said. "But we are up for the challenge. We are going to need to play our best match of the season."
The Trojans have been here before. Thursday's semifinal is a rematch of a semifinal played in 2011. St. Phillip pinned the only loss of the season on Forest Park in that match, 25-22, 25-12, 25-14.
"We do have the right girls that could step up and challenge Battle Creek," Bjork said. "Our serving needs to be sharp and our passers need to be digging out every hit possible. We need to have smart net play and our blockers need to be on the block.
"Everything needs to be clicking for us, and these girls have been stepping up their level of play every match."
Forest Park's season ended in the quarterfinals against Onaway last year, so the Trojans didn't get a chance for the St. Phillip rematch.
"We are pretty pumped up!" Bjork said. "We are going to do our best to make the U.P. proud."
The MHSAA plans to provide broadcast coverage of the games on the MHSAA.TV and MHSAANetwork.com Websites.
There will be live streaming video of all of the games on a subscription basis on MHSAA.TV. Fans can watch four matches in a single day by purchasing a Day Pass for $9.95. Fans can also purchase a Month Pass for $14.95, which will grants access to all three days of the Finals, and the MHSAA L.P. Girls Swimming & Diving Finals on Saturday.
The games will not be shown on cable television by FOX Sports Detroit or Comcast. They will only be shown on MHSAA.TV.
There will also be a separate live audio stream from the finals at MHSAANetwork.com, which is free.
Class D state championship is set for 10 a.m. Saturday.