Soft speaker, hard hitter
NEW CARLISLE — In the two biggest matches for the New Prairie volleyball team during their run to this weekend’s semistate matchup against Class 3A No. 1 New Castle, Cougars freshman middle blocker Ellie Michiaels has been in the right place at the right time on more than one occasion.
During the fourth game of their upset victory over South Bend St. Joseph on October 13, Michiaels registered two big kills with the score tied twice (21-21, 22-22) late in the game. New Prairie won that game, that match and the sectional title later that night.
In last weekend’s regional final win over Northwestern in basically the same situation, Michiaels nailed three big kills from the middle at 21-21, 23-21, and the winning kill to seal a 25-22 triumph for the Cougars.
“She didn’t play like a freshman today,” New Prairie coach Jordan Staus said on Saturday. “I told her, ‘When you’re out there, swing’ and she did. She was blocking shots in the middle, hitting well ... she did such a great job for us. It’s great when you can get that from a freshman.”
It’s been a long journey for the Cougars to reach the Final Four and the same can be said for Michiaels, who wasn’t even slated to make the varsity roster for Staus in the preseason. That changed quickly.
“I’ll be very honest, I didn’t think Ellie was gonna be on varsity this season at first,” Staus said after Tuesday’s practice.
“She did something in an open gym where I said, ‘OK, I can work with that.’ It’s kinda rare for a freshman to be as comfortable on the floor because they always feel like they have to take a backseat to the older kids on the team, but she has enough confidence to go out and perform. I think that’s such a good thing for her, that she has the support of the upperclassmen.”
The upperclassmen — specifically New Prairie’s four seniors: Sarah Fronk, Olivia Kelly, Hannah Rypma and Cali Salat — have loved helping Michiaels along the way during her first high school season.
“I tell her all the time I’m so proud of her. I tell her during all of the games, ‘I need you!’ I tell her that a lot,” Fronk said. “It helps that she brings a really positive attitude. She’s always smiling,” Salat added.
The Cougar seniors have embraced Michiaels throughout the season, bonding with her and their teammates for weekend sleepovers and hanging out with the rest of the “Cougar Crazies” at football games. That, along with the consistent support on the floor, has stuck with Michiaels throughout this season.
″(The seniors are) always there for us and they’re always teaching,” Michiaels said. “I want to be there like they have been for me and I want to teach something to someone that may not know something and just help them like they’ve helped me.”
During her freshman season, Michiaels has 90 kills with a 37.5 kill percentage and 27 blocks, trailing only the Cougars’ lethal 1-2 punch of sophomore Elise Swistek and junior hitter Katie Hancock. She’s found a role within the Cougars’ system and is enjoying the ride almost as much as the seniors are.
“It’s so crazy. I never thought that we would go this far,” Michiaels said. ”(The seniors) would always talk about last year and not winning sectionals and that it probably would be tough to do it this year, but we did and it’s been great.”
IHSAA Class 3A North Semistate
Class 3A No. 1 New Castle (33-5) vs. New Prairie (26-11)
When: Saturday, noon
Where: Huntington North High School
How they got here: NEW CASTLE — def. Blackford (3-0), def. Muncie Burris (3-1), def. Delta (3-0), def. FW Bishop Dwenger (3-2), def. West Noble (3-0). NEW PRAIRIE — def. Jimtown (3-1), def. SB St. Joseph (3-1), def. Culver Academy (3-0), def. Wheeler (3-0), def. Northwestern (3-1).
Players to watch: NEW CASTLE — S Melani Shaffmaster (2017 Gatorade Indiana Volleyball Player of the Year, 956 assists, 232 kills, 201 digs, 40 aces), OH Mabrey Shaffmaster (591 kills, 49.1 kill percentage, 255 digs, 127 aces, 25 blocks), MH Laila Smith (170 kills, 53.5 kill percentage, 20 blocks), DS Zoe Conway (team leader with 332 digs, 43 aces).
NEW PRAIRIE — OH Elise Swistek (team leader in kills with 451 and digs with 371, 41 blocks, 35 aces), MH Katie Hancock (275 kills, 265 digs, team leader with 98 blocks), OH Olivia Kelly (197 kills, team leader with 45 aces, 114 digs), S Sarah Fronk (team leader with 634 assists).