A varsity volleyball career that began four years ago ended on Nov. 8 for Burr Oak middle hitter Michaela Ultz when the Bobcats lost in straight sets to No. 8 Athens in the Class D district semifinals.
Her fingerprints, though, will be on the program for years to come.
As a four-year starter, Ultz never missed a single match. Throughout her tenure she took mental notes of how a team should operate.
“We started out this season strong and actually had girls that wanted to play,” she said. “My freshman year we had a bunch of talent but nobody wanted to use it. They’d bicker; drama would happen tearing the team apart and we weren’t playing as a team. This year we’ve done a lot more team bonding and focusing on how we can help each other instead of just ourselves. It was really nice.”
It was really needed. Burr Oak featured a pair of eighth-graders this season that played prominent roles — a touchy situation for head coach Kris Owens considering one is her daughter.
Hitter Sydney Owens and setter Brooke Cooper were called up this fall to blend with seniors Ultz, Jade Summey and Tori Everitt, juniors Jade Lown, Madi Adams, Kyhann Currier and Jasmine Patton and sophomore Chelsey Boyd. The decision wasn’t met with unanimous approval from players and parents.
Ultz, admittedly not the most vocal player, was an advocate for the youngsters.
“I kind of knew how to go about it,” said Ultz, who notched 134 kills this year and finished with 339 for her career. “I try not to step into somebody else’s space where I’m not supposed to be; if the girls come to me, that’s when I take that role. I try to let them figure it out on their own and then I can give them advice here and there.
“I love it. I know we need somebody else to step up after my class is gone, so I just love seeing them shine. They both have the skills and have gone to camps over the summer to be where they’re at. If anybody wants to be jealous they can just be jealous of how they work hard for what they want and not just get it handed to them.”
Still, with such a wide age gap, there were natural hurdles to cross while helping the newbies adjust to varsity competition.
“It has been a little hard because they’ll get down on themselves a lot,” Ultz said. “I like my sets kind of low; that’s how I’ve been trained for four years. I’ll tell [Cooper] if it gets too high and she’ll get down on herself. In one practice we actually had a bonding experience where us seniors took the two eighth-graders one by one and we told them when we leave, we want to come back next year to see the two freshmen as the captains of the team. We know they can do it because they’ve put so much heart and soul into it.”
As has Ultz, who can’t believe how quickly the four years passed.
“It’s very hard to believe,” she said. “Four years ago I was a freshman on the team and the only new one. It went by in the blink of an eye.”
Ultz walks away from the court with 146 career aces, 134 blocks and 623 digs. She rolled her ankle pretty bad against Colon in October of her junior year but didn’t miss any time other than practice. There have been other bumps and bruises along the way, but she powered through the pain.
“Michaela, since day one, has been one of the most coachable athletes with whom I have had the opportunity to work,” Owens said. “She has done everything I have ever asked of her in regard to training, she is by far the most respectful athlete I have coached and she is a role model in the classroom. I have pushed her to always do better and she has always responded with a nod and goes right to work. I think it’s safe to say that she is irreplaceable. I will fill her position because that’s the game, but nobody will fill her shoes.”