Autumn Christenson, right, gets ready for an attack at Thursday’s district semifinal match at Spring Lake.
WHITEHALL — Having one NCAA Division I-caliber athlete on a high school sports team is a pretty remarkable feat outside the Chicagos and Detroits of the world.
Having two is pretty much unheard of.
Yet that is the embarrassment of riches that the Whitehall Vikings have enjoyed the last few seasons with Autumn Christenson and Hope Rillema patrolling the volleyball court.
“It’s very rare that a coach has the chance to have two D-I kids on one team,” Whitehall coach Ted Edsall said. “We’re lucky.”
Unfortunately for Whitehall, that run is coming to an end this year as both will graduate before playing college volleyball next season.
“It might be tougher on me,” Edsall said. “I told them I wasn’t going to come this season, because if I don’t show up, they won’t graduate.”
Christenson has verbally committed to Michigan State University to play volleyball and Rillema will head to Morehead State University next fall.
To tell the story of these two remarkable talents, it’s fitting to tell them separately. After all, circumstances have conspired to keep the pair from being on the court together more often than not.
It’s been pretty clear since before Autumn Christenson even entered high school that she would be a team leader on the volleyball court for Whitehall.
“I coached (Christenson and Rillema) when they were sixth, seventh and eighth-graders in AAU volleyball,” Edsall said. “Autumn would jump and swing and miss, but you could tell how athletic she was.”
Once Christenson got to the point of hitting on her swings, it was all over. The senior is likely to be named all-conference, all-area and all-region for the fourth year in a row.
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” Christenson said. “I just go out and play my best. I’d be honored to be named that four years in a row.”
The recognition has been even more remarkable considering the virtually unprecedented injury troubles Christenson has had to deal with. She was originally hurt during a basketball game her freshman year and underwent four surgeries that kept her out for parts of every volleyball season since.
For the ultra-competitive Hope Rillema, being sidelined with mononucleosis at this time of year was especially unfortunate.
“i am dying to get back out there,” Rillema said. “It’s tough to be on the sidelines especially since it’s my senior year. I want to get back to playing with my teammates.”
Rillema went to the doctor Thursday and was cleared to play. The Vikings had limited availability from Rillema in Saturday’s district final match with Spring Lake, played after the Beacon went to press. She will hope to be at full force should Whitehall advance to the regionals.
Rillema, a Miss Volleyball finalist this season, the Vikings’ first one in eight years and only their second one ever, has been a key cog in the Whitehall machine since being called up to varsity her freshman year.
With Christenson and Rillema leading the way, Whitehall has their eyes on the ultimate goal — a state volleyball championship.
Thursday, the Vikings’ dreams were bolstered by a three-game sweep of Orchard View as well as the news that Rillema will return to the court.
For the leading ladies of Whitehall volleyball, though, playing like it might be their last game has been their approach to competition all along.
“We really want to win the state championship,” Rillema said. “I just want to play every game like it’s our last and put everything into it.”
“I try my hardest not to lose,” Christenson added. “I go out there and play like every day is my last, because I never know if I’m going to get hurt again.”
See full stories in Beacon print or e-edition