FARMINGTON >> For the better part of the past decade, postseason success for the Farmington Hills Mercy and Birmingham Marian volleyball programs has tended to come at the other’s expense. One usually knocks the other out.
And though all five regular season meetings between the Marlins and Mustangs went decidedly in favor of No. 1-ranked Mercy this year, none of those matches resembled what took place Tuesday in a Division 1 regional semifinal.
Giving everything it had to give, Marian rallied from a two-set deficit with a pair of dramatic wins, which forced a decisive fifth set against a Mercy squad that had seldom faced such resistance all year.
Heavily favored Mercy kept its cool amid the adversity, however, and regrouped in time to pull out a fifth set victory and survive.
“It was crazy. We struggled in the sets we lost. We didn’t play bad, but we got complacent,” Marlins senior Jess Mruzik said. “Between the fourth and fifth set, we regrouped and (said), ‘Hey, we can’t get complacent and have to keep the foot on the gas.’”
With the five-set victory, 25-22, 25-12, 19-25, 28-30, 15-6, Mercy advances to Thursday’s regional final against Detroit Cass Tech at 6 p.m. at Farmington High School.
The match began no differently than previous head-to-head meetings, with Mercy leading the first set, 24-13. Perhaps as the first sign of things to come, however, Marian staved off defeat with nine consecutive points and narrowly missed completing a gigantic opening-frame comeback.
The Marlins dominated the second set with a pair of 8-0 runs to take a commanding two games to none lead.
Marian didn’t go down quietly, however, as the Mustangs scratched out a 25-19 third-set victory to push the match further than previous meetings.
Things got interesting from there. Marian held a 20-17 advantage in the fourth set, but following a timeout, Mruzik repeatedly delivered with a staggering eight kills in the remainder of the frame to keep extending play. Tied 28-28, Marian senior Christine Audette secured the requisite two-point margin of victory for her Mustangs with a kill and a block to even the match overall.
Quickly regaining control in the fifth set, Mercy jumped out to a 5-0 lead and never looked back en route to a 15-6 decision.
“This is the sixth time we’ve had to play Marian. At some point, everybody knows each other and it’s such a big rivalry with all of the emotion that takes place. I thought Marian earned their points and they played well,” Mercy coach Loretta Vogel said. “In tomorrow’s practice, I can assure you we’ll change some things.”
The Marlins (54-1) have spent the entire season as the favorite to win the Division 1 title given the talent and experience they returned. Over the past five seasons, Mercy has been eliminated by the eventual state champion four times, and lost to runner-up Marian the 2017 semifinals.
“There’s always that point in playoffs where it goes from business as usual to now we having to take things super serious,” Mruzik said. “Every time you step on the court, it could be the last time we’re playing together.”
“They were obviously super prepared for us,” Mruzik said of Marian. “We know what each other’s tendencies are. I think that’s the most difficult thing as a player that you have to face – how do you overcome those tendencies because they know what you’re going to do? You have to be able to do something else. I think we did a really nice job of figuring that out.”
For Marian, Tuesday’s narrow defeat represented significant progress for a team that will return almost intact a year from now, graduating just three seniors and one starter in Audette.
“I think the team really believed they could do it,” Marian coach Mayssa Cook said. “I think we just saw what we as coaches believed they had (in them) all season. Being primarily freshmen and sophomores on the court, it was now or never. I saw the fight in them and what they were capable of.
“Obviously, we wanted the ‘W,’ but I believe they can each walk off the court feeling like I did everything I could.”