More than 225 teams and 2,000 players competed for Junior Olympic bids at the Southern California Volleyball Association (SCVA) Junior Boys Invitational Jan. 15 – 17 at the American Sports Center in Anaheim. In all, 44 berths to the 32nd annual USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships were awarded – 10 each in the 18-, 17-, 14- and 13-year-old divisions and four in the 15-year-old division. The Junior Olympics are scheduled for June 29 – July 6 at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota.
Although he has played or coached the sport at the highest level for much of his life, Pono Ma’a never has encountered a volleyball team as successful as the one he currently coaches.
Ka Ulukoa M15 Mizuno will try to win its fourth consecutive title at the 32nd annual USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships, which are scheduled for June 29-July 6 at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota.
The Honolulu, Hawaii-based team is undefeated since making its debut at the Junior Olympics three years ago. It compiled a 29-0 record, winning 58 of its 62 sets, to claim the 12-, 13- and 14-year-old Open Division titles in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
“I have been around this game a long time and I have never seen a team like this,” said the 46-year-old Ma’a, who has played or coached volleyball at the highest level for much of his life. “We have had good teams from Hawaii, but they haven’t done things at the level that this team is doing things. It’s incredible when you think about how dominant they are.”
Ka Ulukoa M15 Mizuno continued its dominance in January, winning its second consecutive title at the Southern California Volleyball Association (SCVA) Junior Boys Invitational at the American Sports Center in Anaheim.
The Hawaiians, who are 17-0 in matches and 34-0 in sets in their only appearances at the annual event, received one of the 44 Junior Olympic bids awarded at the three-day tournament – 10 each in the 18-, 17-, 14- and 13-year-old divisions and four in the 15-year-old division, which had fewer teams than the others.
“I tell them to enjoy it,” Ma’a said, “because what they are doing is not normal.”
Much like Ma’a himself, opposing coaches, players and fans as well as objective observers cannot believe the dominance displayed by his team.
“If you are going to write about anybody, you need to write about them,” said Balboa Bay 17 Quiksilver Head Coach Brad Keller, whose team won its age division at the Invitational. “They are a pretty special group.”
Interestingly enough, Ka Ulukoa M15 Mizuno has only eight players: defensive specialist Austin Amian III, libero Skylan Engleman, outside hitter Evan Enriques, opposite hitter Adrian Faitalia, middle blocker Noah Hayashida, setter Micah Ma’a, middle blocker Keenan Meyer and outside hitter Larry Tuileta. However, the team has proven quality matters more than quantity.
Engleman, Enriques, Ma’a and Tuileta are coaches’ sons and have been around the sport for much of their lives.
All but Faitalia have been with the team since its inception. A football convert whose father wanted him to work on his foot speed, Faitalia joined the volleyball powerhouse the following season.
“The real bottom line is that the kids are really willing to conform,” said Pono Ma’a, a former Association of Volleyball Players Tour standout and two-time All-American at the University of Hawaii. “They don’t bring a lot of personal baggage. They are willing to learn. They accept a different way of teaching.
“When they first came to us, they came from different backgrounds and they had been playing in different camps. I told them, ‘In order for us to be effective, you can’t come in here thinking you are just a setter or just a libero or just a middle blocker or just an outside hitter. Everybody has to do everything.’ That is a little different than everybody else’s way of thinking. Our smallest guy was hitting, and our biggest guy was passing. What it does is it makes us really versatile. If we are in trouble, anybody can get us up. That is our biggest strength.
“This is the age of specialists. There is a big premium on being the best libero or the best middle blocker, but when you don’t have the numbers, there is a bigger premium on being versatile. In the state of Hawaii, there is more of an emphasis on basketball than volleyball. We aren’t getting the 6-foot-6 guys, but we have found a way to deal with what we get. Man for man, we are definitely not the best, but when you put us together, there aren’t a lot of holes. We get beat in warm-ups all the time, but we are pretty tough when the game starts.”
Perhaps more impressive than the Hawaiians’ accomplishments is their work ethic, which has not changed despite their dominance.
“They are a humble team,” Ma’a said. “When we hit the gym, we aren’t hooting or hollering or anything like that, but when we are in the gym, people know it.
“They have been able to handle the success. We have taught them that there is always better. Even the best guys in the world can improve. That is the bar we have set.”
Ma’a recalled an experience at the Invitational: Ka Ulukoa M15 Mizuno had won a set by more than 15 points, but Ma’a was not pleased with his players. The opposing coach asked him how he could be frustrated after such an overwhelming victory.
“He was just amazed because we killed his team, but we were still trying to improve things,” said Ma’a, whose players—a collection of one eighth-grader, six ninth-graders and one tenth-grader—already are attracting the attention of college coaches from powerful programs such as Pepperdine University and the University of Southern California. “We just weren’t playing at the level we are capable of. The bar isn’t winning; the bar is executing and improving.”
Ka Ulukoa Executive Director Lee Lamb said some of the credit for the Hawaiians’ success should go to Ma’a and assistant coach Charlie Jenkins.
“(Ma’a and Jenkins) have done a tremendous job of ingraining the fundamentals into the boys, and I think it’s evident when you watch them play,” said Lamb, whose non-profit organization uses participation in volleyball as a way to help kids grow academically, athletically and socially.
“These two coaches are the epitome of the adage, ‘Don’t attempt tactically what you cannot do technically.’ They made sure the fundamentals were second nature before they opened it up and introduced more advanced concepts.”
949 16 Black
16-year-old Open Division champions
Momentum and motivation were a winning combination for 949 16 Black, which claimed the 16-year-old Open division title at the SCVA Invitational.
According to 949 16 Black Head Coach Brandon Taliaferro, a third-place finish in their age group last year inspired his team to fight for a first-place finish this year.
“Most of the kids were upset about it,” said Taliaferro, a former UCLA star who led the Bruins to a pair of NCAA titles (1998 and 2000). “We were hoping to get to the finals last year.”
The second-year squad also benefited from a pair of victories in the SCVA’s Points Tournament and Holiday Classic in December.
“We carried quite a bit of momentum into the tournament this year,” said Taliaferro, whose team was 10-0 in matches and 20-3 in sets. “We won the two previous tournaments, so we were the favorite leading up to it.
“They struggled a little bit with being the No. 1 seed. Every team wanted to beat us and played their best. We didn’t just walk through this tournament. We lost a lot of games and went three quite a few times. We had to play well from start to finish for us to move on.”
Taliaferro’s team finished second in its age group at the USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships last year, which was its inaugural season.
“We have pretty much the same team returning,” Taliaferro said. “We have built on what we started last year. Winning the silver medal was a tremendous boost of confidence. It was our first year in the Junior Olympics. It was a huge accomplishment for them.
“The confidence they gained from it has propelled us into this year. The team has really come together. They have been committed and dedicated to working hard in practice, which has resulted in some good wins for them.”
The San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based squad consists of three newcomers (outside hitters Ryan Schickling and Peter Van Leifde, and middle blocker Colin Wilbur) and eight returners (middle blockers Christian Burns, Christian Hessenauer, and Corey Lowe, setter Carl Nolet, libero Conner Palumbo, outside hitters Thomas Thayer and Lucas Yoder, and opposite hitter Jack Yoder).
Balboa Bay 17 Quiksilver
17-year-old Open Division champions
Injuries and illnesses hindered Balboa Bay 17 Quiksilver during its fall season, but the team overcame those obstacles to win the 17-year-old Open division title at the Invitational.
None of the injuries hurt more than the ones to outside hitters Kyle Baily (ankle) and Dillon Hoffman (foot).
“It made us really thin there,” Balboa Bay 17 Quiksilver Head Coach Brad Keller said. “We had to improvise.”
The Costa Mesa, Calif.-based squad had a case of the flu during the tournament, leaving it four or five players short at times.
“That is why this team is special,” said Keller, whose team was 9-0 in matches and 18-3 in sets. “Different guys had to step up at different times, and they did it.”
Balboa Bay 17 Quiksilver will try for its second gold medal in four years when it competes in the USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships this summer.
Keller’s club received the bronze medal in the 14-year-old division in 2008, the gold medal in the 15-year-old division in 2009 and the bronze medal in the 16-year-old division in 2010.
“This team has been very successful in the past,” he said.
Three newcomers—middle blocker Andrew Benz, outside hitter Braxton Luke and setter Grady Zant—integrated seamlessly with 10 returners: Baily, Hoffman, outside hitter Parker Brown, setter Josef Ctvrtlik, libero Griffin Leggett, opposite hitters Christopher Long and Andrew Whitt, and middle blockers Remy Lamons, Kyle Palmer and Jack Reed, to help Balboa Bay 17 Quiksilver maintain its upper-echelon status despite switching its formation from a 6-2 to a 5-1.
Adding new players and installing a new offense “changed the dynamic of this team,” Keller said, “but we are finally back on par with what we are capable of doing.”
Santa Monica Beach Club 18-Black
18-year-old Open Division champions
Santa Monica Beach Club 18-Black did not have the deepest roster in its age group at the Invitational, but it might have had the most talented.
A quartet of college prospects—outside hitter Austin Kingi, setter Travis Magorien, libero Andrew Sato and outside hitter Matthew Tarantino—led Santa Monica Beach Club 18-Black to the 18-year-old Open division title.
Magorien (Northridge) and Sato (Long Beach) will continue their careers at California State University schools. Tarantino will play at Pepperdine University. Kingi is undecided, but he has offers from some of the nation’s perennial powers.
Kingi and Tarantino are first-year players who have lifted the eight-man squad. Kingi switched from Southern California Volleyball Club. Tarantino played a year above his age last season.
“Both of them are very high-level attackers,” said Santa Monica Beach Club 18-Black Head Coach Aaron Wong, whose team was 10-0 in matches and 20-1 in sets at the tournament. “They just brought a nice mix to the group that we had before.”
In addition to Magorien and Sato, the core of the team features defensive specialist Nils Besvold, opposite hitter Matt Hilling, and middle blockers Dustan Neary and Taylor Tattersall.
“This is their first real year together as a team,” said Wong, who played at Pierce College in Los Angeles. “It has been a nice experience. They have really grown as a team. This is a much different team than last year. They have matured as young men.”
Without Wong on the sideline or Kingi and Tarantino on the court, the team finished third in its age group at the SCVA Invitational and 21st at the USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships last year.
“The addition of the new guys made us much stronger as a unit,” Wong said. “Not to say we definitely needed Austin and Matt because even if we didn’t have those guys, I think we would still be playing at a high level, but having them makes the team much better.
“What this victory really means for the club is we are really proud of our coaching staff and administration. I think it’s more of a club victory than a team victory. It shows we are an elite club. As a team, I’m most encouraged by the fact that we really worked on becoming more consistent and playing at a high level at all times.”
Baja 14-A captured the 14-year-old Open Division (9-0 in matches, 18-0 in sets). However, neither its coach nor its representative could be reached for comment.
Southern California Volleyball Association Junior Boys Invitational Rosters
(9-0 in matches, 18-0 in sets)
Ruben Carpio, head coach
Alonso Martinez, assistant coach
Raymundo Torres, assistant coach
Adrian Delgado, team representative
Alberto Arreola, chaperone
Ka Ulukoa M15 Mizuno
(8-0 in matches, 16-0 in sets)
Pono Ma’a, head coach
Charles Jenkins, assistant coach
Lee Lamb, team representative
Maile Tuileta, chaperone
Austin Amian III
949 16 Black
(10-0 in matches, 20-3 in sets)
Brandon Taliaferro, head coach
Peter Van Leifde
Balboa Bay 17 Quiksilver
(9-0 in matches, 18-3 in sets)
Brad Keller, head coach
Stephen Astor, assistant coach
Scott Panaro, assistant coach
Travis Turner, team representative
Santa Monica Beach Club 18-Black
(10-0 in matches, 20-1 in sets)
Aaron Wong, head coach
Alexandra Dunphy, assistant coach
David Hunt, assistant coach
Originally published in March/April 2011