Stemle sets aside old duties for preferred post

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Michaela Stemle has assumed strictly a defensive stance this season, after the Northeast Dubois senior spent her first three years in the program as a setter. The change suits Stemle, who prefers defense over setting and has the Jeeps bound for tonight’s regional clash against No. 4 Loogootee. The match is set for 7 p.m. at Dubois.

Herald Sports Editor

Michaela Stemle had a secret.

She lived with it for five years. Some people knew about it, but she shielded it effectively enough that her coach wasn’t fully aware.

Stemle was a setter who didn’t enjoy setting. The Northeast Dubois senior didn’t go so far as to say she detested it, but judging from the “ugh”s and “urgh”s and the way she contorts and wrinkles her face when talking about the era she spent setting, suffice it to say she wasn’t happy.

All along, Stemle had her sights on a dream job.

“Defense has always been my strong suit, and I would have been more comfortable there,” she said. “But how do you ask, ‘Coach, I don’t want to do my job anymore?’”

Funny she should mention that. Around the same time, Jeep coach Stephanie Schepers was wrestling with a question, too.

Needing to recoup her defense after watching a core of seniors depart last season, Schepers realized her team’s back line needed some aid. Throughout the summer, Stemle’s instincts, hustle and sharp serve-receive jumped out to Schepers. But the Jeep coach, who was switched from a setter to a hitter her senior year of high school, worried what Stemle’s response would be when she asked her about swapping positions.

Schepers sat down with Stemle and braced herself to break what was presumed to be awkward news.

“I remember sitting in the meeting and I remember telling her, ‘We’re going to switch you to defense, we really need you there,’ and she’s like, ‘OK,’” Schepers said. “I was like, ‘Wait, wait ... that went way better than I thought it was going to be.’”

So Schepers asked once more, just to double check.

“Seriously, you’re 100 percent OK with this?”

Heck yeah, she was.

J. Stemle

“You came home and you were like, ‘Mom, I’m not setting anymore!’” recalled Jenna, her sophomore sister and back-row compatriot.

“I was kind happy on the inside,” Michaela said. “It took so much pressure off.”

Stemle insists she wasn’t a natural at setting and sensed that “I had to work at it a little more than most people.” So she fully embraced the change Schepers made, and the domino effect has allowed the entire Jeep lineup to enter a comfort zone as Northeast Dubois (23-9) has won its most matches and its first sectional title since 2006 entering tonight’s 7 p.m. regional clash with No. 4 Loogootee (31-4) at Dubois.

Stemle and Talia Terwiske shared setting duties last season, but with Terwiske handling that this season, Jeep hitters don’t have to adjust between different brands of sets. And Stemle is freed up to patrol the back row. During a match at the Perry Central Tournament earlier this season when Stemle was intercepting everything in her radius with a palm or an arm or a fist, the Jeeps entered a timeout and Schepers joked with her players that they were free to just stand back and watch Stemle run around and get everything.

Stemle is 5-foot-3 — “and a quarter” — she interjects with a smile. With a father who’s 5-8 and a mother at 5-2, Michaela joked there was no hope for her or Jenna, who’s also joined the Jeeps’ back row this season and heightens some of the silliness that her older sister starts.

It’s typical for Michaela to launch the rest of the team into the viral “Gangnam Style” dance, either in the locker room, in the hallway before a match, or at least “nowhere where we would be seen, because it’s absurd,” she said. Michaela and Jeep libero Taylor Hopf randomly make noises at each other, including a cackly witchlike laugh that Jenna calls “creepy” but has started doing herself.

Michaela also has a soundtrack all her own, as Jenna kids her about the grunts and squawks she emits while stretching her body to keep the Jeeps in rallies. To keep a ball alive, sometimes Michaela sometimes does the splits to get there.

“I’m not graceful whatsoever,” Michaela said. “It just doesn’t turn out well sometimes.”

That’s just a touch of self-deprecation from a player who’s continually refined her game. Early in the season, Schepers said, Michaela wouldn’t go all-out to save a shot tipped to the middle of the floor — because as a setter, you’re programmed to have your hands prepped for the set. Now, she’s fully wired as a defender. And Schepers, who picked up on Stemle’s frustration when she was a setter but wasn’t aware she preferred another position, said Stemle’s deference for the first three years of her career says volumes about her attitude.

“She’s the one who’s willing to do whatever she can to help the team,” Schepers said. “She’s just a great, great girl.”

There are more like her, too.

Michaela ranks fourth on the team in digs (10.4 per match), behind Hopf (17.3), Emily Lueken (15) and Jenna (10.6). A few months ago, Schepers feared her team might be lacking for defense. The Jeeps have been anything but, thanks in part to a player who finally feels positioned where she belongs.

“I feel that we have the strongest defensive line that I’ve seen in a very, very long time,” Schepers said. “The three of them (the Stemles and Hopf), they work so well together and they know exactly how to read each other. They have such a trust that you can’t find anywhere else. (Michaela’s) move to there and being able to focus on defense, it’s just meant great things for our team.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at

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