Cassie Haut faced a monumental task.
St. Mary Catholic Central won back-to-back state volleyball titles in 2019 and 2020, but the Kestrels fielded a team that looked very different in 2021. After securing seven key seniors, SMCC had few players with starting experience.
And the coach who had guided their success, Karen O’Brien, was forced to take a step back from the team as they battled health issues.
Haut has been promoted to lead a new era of Kestrel volleyball.
The new era ended up looking a lot like the old one.
With Haut and O’Brien at the helm, SMCC finished 36-12 overall this season, won the Huron League championship and reached the state finals for the third consecutive year. For all the team’s success, Haut was selected as the Monroe County area volleyball coach by The Monroe News sports team.
In many ways, Haut shares the honor with O’Brien. The two were introduced as co-coaches this season. Haut led the day-to-day activities of the team while O’Brien helped as often as she could after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the fourth time.
“In truth, she was much more present than I ever thought going through what she went through,” Haut said. “That fits the type of person she is. She was there for the fun part. Lots of games, some tournaments and all the playoffs, which was great.”
O’Brien’s mentorship has been invaluable in Haut’s first season as head coach and only his second year as a coach after serving as SMCC’s assistant last year.
“She taught me a lot,” Haut said. “It was good to have different brains to always choose with the other coaches and myself. She brought different exercises that she had always done and I brought other exercises and it was nice to take them. combine and toss ideas back and forth.”
Haut and O’Brien, along with assistant coach Taylor Vuich, worked well together to solve the problem of building a team almost from scratch.
“I feel like every year we start over,” Haut said. “It’s a new team, a new girl group, new friendships, a new school year. Losing a large part of the team may seem bad, but it’s something the seniors knew was coming. They hadn’t been in big leadership roles, but they knew they had to step in.”
The SMCC was led this season by seniors Colleen Castiglione, Kate Collingsworth, Audrey Cousino and Ava Kuenhlein. These four were relied on for more than their talent on the pitch, but also for their ability to guide the underclass. This year’s team included two freshmen in critical roles as well as other sophomores and juniors with extended playing time.
“The first step in their senior leadership started with bringing in freshmen and making everyone on the team feel welcome,” Haut said. “It was obvious that they created a great bond with the younger girls. They really accepted their role. We always talk about accepting your role and excelling in your role, whatever your role.”
Both Cousino and Collingsworth embodied this mission. Cousino has been asked to play a new position this year. Collingsworth suffered an injury mid-season and was forced to return to work as the team’s starting setter. Both players accepted the challenge without hesitation.
“Part of the philosophy is that all playing time is earned,” Haut said. “We had another setter and did a really good job and Kate had to win her place like everyone else. And she did. She proved 100 per cent that she deserved to run 5-1. “
The way Collingsworth responded to this adversity helped push the program forward.
“She never complained, never came up to me and said anything to me,” Haut said. “You could tell it clicked in her head and she started to work a lot harder. She started to listen and communicate more and was a big voice on the pitch. It shows the level playing field. He There’s always a chance when you give 110% to prove yourself and earn your place.”
The SMCC had no shortage of skeptics heading into the season. Haut heard it all.
“It certainly added fuel to the fire that others didn’t believe in us,” she said. “They didn’t see the potential that we saw. … There were quite a few people talking. A lot of people compared it to the year before. But every year you can’t compare because whatever happens, it’s not going to be the same.”
The start of the season was a learning experience as each player navigated how to play with each other, how to interact with the coaching staff and what was expected of them . Still, the team got off to a good start, winning 12 of their first 15 games in dominant fashion. The Kestrels only played a five-set match in mid-September.
“We had a lot of energy from the start,” Haut said. “They were super excited to start the season and then we started the climb. We wanted to get to the top at the right time. I think we did. We really put it all together.”
That success came largely through the play of freshman hitters McKenna Payne and Jessica Costlow. The young pair proved to be two of the best offensive players in the Monroe County area. Haut was thrilled to get even more than she expected from the talented duo.
“Freshmen that you always think are a little shy or a little quiet because the whole high school experience is new, but they surprised me,” she said. “They came in with an energy and personality that I didn’t expect. When I first met them I thought they would be shy, but they fit in immediately.”
SMCC peaked as the No. 2 ranked team in Division 3 and, at the end of the season, were ready for another deep tournament. The Kestrels won their 21st straight district championship and fifth straight regional title. SMCC rallied after two sets to defeat Lenawee County Athletic Association champions Brooklyn Columbia Central in the regional final.
The young team weren’t at all nervous to be back on the big stage. SMCC defeated Pewamo Westphalia in four sets in the state quarterfinals and swept McBain in the semifinals at Battle Creek. The season ended in a heartbreak in the state final, falling in five sets to Reese 25-18, 25-19, 15-25, 21-25, 14-16.
“The big stage can be tough when you’ve never been there and had minimal girls who’ve been there before,” Haut said. “I think they handled the bright lights, the big crowds, the media, all of that very well. … We’ve been preparing all year. There’s no reason to be nervous. We’ve embraced the noise. There’s nothing different on the pitch and nothing different about the team. It was all about us and what we can control.”
Haut was able to share his own experiences to help the team cope with the loss. Haut also lost in five sets in the state finals when she was a freshman at SMCC.
“It hurts, but it adds fuel to the fire for next year and makes you want it even more,” she said. “I was honored to be able to coach them and they came so far. They had all this potential and it really showed. And we did what nobody thought we could do.”