Autumn Christenson 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.
The injuries tested the limits of Christenson’s passion for volleyball as she had to go through extensive rehabilitation, but she didn’t ever consider giving up the sport.
“I had to lift weights three times a week,” Christenson said. “I had physical therapy three times a week. I had to travel all the way to Ann Arbor once or twice every month. Tons of icing, medicine and stuff like that.”
“Lots of work,” she added, with a clear emphasis on the first word.
Edsall said due to Christenson’s injuries, it took until this season for her to develop the same kind of ability in the back row that she exhibits at the net. Christenson, however, has clearly worked on that aspect of her game, and it’s on display at each match when she has to make digs and passes.
“Now Autumn’s playing all the way around, and she does a good job in the back row,” Edsall said.
Despite the injuries, Michigan State, a highly-ranked volleyball program in the Big Ten Conference, continued to recruit Christenson after originally sending her a letter in eighth grade. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan and even consistent national-title contender Penn State also expressed interest, but Christenson, a lifelong Spartan fan who wanted to stay close to home, was never really on the market once Michigan State came calling.
“I really like the coach (Cathy George, in her 8th season at MSU),” Christenson said. “She really wants to have a good team. I really liked her personality. I got to know the girls really well. I like the atmosphere. I love that it’s not too far away.”
This season, Christenson has finally been able to remain on the court all season, and is racking up kills in bunches. Helping to lead Whitehall to another conference championship Saturday at the West Michigan Conference tournament, the senior has her eyes on specific goals for the rest of her Vikings’ career.
“Honestly, if we make it to the regional final and play our absolute best, or any type of finals,” Christenson said. “As long as we played our best, I’ll be happy with that. If we go to state finals and rock it and win, that’d be amazing, the most unbelievable feeling in the world.”
After years of on-and-off injuries and using the help and support of family, teammates and Edsall, Christenson has found herself thrust into the role of main leader with Hope Rillema now sidelined with mononucleosis. Christenson and fellow captain Bailey Seeger have found themselves in an unfamiliar role of leading the Vikings themselves.
“A little ironic,” Edsall said. “She doesn’t need the spotlight, but she has stepped up when we needed her to step up, especially leadership-wise. I’ve been most impressed with her the last few weeks as far as taking over.”
Christenson and Rillema have enjoyed a positive relationship over the last few years in terms of pushing one another to be better. Christenson said the two get along well due to their different personalities. By all accounts, Rillema is a hyper-intense competitor even by athlete standards.
“We’re kind of opposite in a way,” Christenson said. “We both work together. We mesh well.”
Rillema said it took her illness, which has sidelined her for just about all of October, for it to really hit her how much Christenson missed being on the court during her injuries.
“I realize now how much she wanted to be out there with us,” Rillema said. “It’s tough having to sit on the bench and watch. The most I can do for my team is be there, cheer loud. It’s tough not being able to play. Autumn is doing a really great job.”
Christenson’s post-high school goals include becoming a veterinarian, a program in which she says MSU is strong. Perhaps inspired by the recent Olympic heroics in London of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, she also harbors hopes of becoming a beach volleyball player.
It probably doesn’t hurt that stepfather Rob Thompson used to be a semipro beach volleyball player himself.
“I might try indoor, but I really like the outdoor beach style, and I feel like I would fit better in that area,” Christenson said. “I’m not the tallest and I’m not the biggest, so I feel like beach would be better.”
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.
While teammate Christenson was more heavily recruited by Division I colleges and received deserved praise for her talents and coverage for her injuries, Rillema has been content to play volleyball.
“I guess I do kind of fly under the radar,” Rillema said. “It’s always been my thing to go out and play volleyball. I don’t worry about what other people are saying. I know that sounds cheesy, but I just play volleyball.”
The senior may not stand out for her height and raw athletic ability the way Christenson does, but Edsall has clearly been impressed with Rillema’s all-around talents.
“She’s a tremendous jumper if you’ve seen her play,” Edsall said. “Everybody thinks about her hitting, but she’s one of the best back-row players in the country. She is only under the radar to people who don’t know a lot about volleyball. You ask any coach in this area, Hope is very well-respected. Coaches know what’s important.”
The admiration held in the area for Rillema is clear in the hardware she has earned over her career. She is expected to be named all-conference for the fourth year in a row and receive all-area and all-region recognition for the third year in a row.
Rillema’s back-row abilities were further validated when she received offers to play libero at Ohio State and Mississippi. However, ever the competitor, Rillema wanted to play in the front row as well as the back, and she said her best chance to do that came from Morehead State.
“I wanted to go and be a hitter and play back row hopefully,” Rillema said. “Going to Morehead State will give me a better opportunity to be hitter because I’m shorter. I like the atmosphere more, too. Smaller classes and more what I’m used to being from Whitehall.”
The Morehead State coach, Jaime Gordon, coaches at an AAU camp run by Edsall, which helped facilitate Rillema’s recruitment. In addition, Edsall attended Michigan State, where Christenson will go. Apart from being able to set his dynamic duo up with contacts at both schools, Edsall said he had no effect on his players’ college choices.
“Their parents and their AAU coaches have more effect on where they’re going to go,” Edsall said.
Rillema said she is undecided as far as career prospects, but is considering the medical field as a main option.
Rillema’s intense leadership combined with Christenson’s own determination and talent has combined to deliver a mutually beneficial relationship on and off the court, as the two stars push one another to be better.
“Me and Autumn get along really well,” Rillema said. “We’ve kind of always been competitive with each other, but we get along really well.”
Rillema added that the fact that her and Christenson are somewhat of opposites benefits the team, keeping the team leaders’ voices from growing repetitive or monotonous.
“I think it’s important to have different personalities come into play,” Rillema said. “Our teammates respond differently to both of us. I might be the most serious, but it’s important to have every different personality involved on our team.”
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.”
Whitehall would travel to Fremont Tuesday and Thursday for the regional tournament should it defeat Spring Lake Saturday. It would be on to Cadillac from there for the quarterfinals.
The Vikings entered the week ranked fourth in the state in Class B. As luck would have it, two of the three teams ranked ahead of them, #3 Forest Hills Eastern and #1 Lake Odessa-Lakewood, would meet in the regionals. If state rankings held to form, Whitehall would not face a team ranked ahead of it until the semifinals, when #2 North Branch would be the opponent. It would be the quarterfinals before Whitehall would be slated to meet a team so much as receiving votes in the Class B poll.
With Rillema slated to rejoin the team and Christenson going strong, the stars seem to be lining up for the Vikings to make history at Whitehall, and potentially send off its best senior volleyball class ever in style.
Edsall noted that life would go on without Christenson and Rillema on the team in 2013, but he can be forgiven for being a little wistful at the prospect.
“It’s not easy to be as good as they are,” Edsall said. “I don’t care how athletic they are, they have worked their butt off. They have gone out of town, AAU, play year-round. They’ve dedicated themselves to be this good. They practice hard, they do everything a coach would want.”
“Volleyball will continue after Hope and Autumn. I just hope it ends on something special.”