Once the Sports Performance 18 Elite girls’ team got rolling this season, it was unstoppable.
Sports Performance, based out of Aurora, Ill., closed out the season on a 48 match winning streak that culminated with the team running the table and winning the 18 Open title at the AAU Girls’ Junior National Volleyball Championships in Orlando, Fla. The team finished with a 91-4 overall record. During their incredible winning streak, Sports Performance lost just two sets.
Sports Performance defeated ASICS KIVA 18 Red for the AAU title, 25-14, 25-13. Of the 24 sets Sports Performance won at the AAU event, 17 saw the opponent fail to reach 20 points and in seven sets the opponent was limited to 12 points or less.
“We really thought we had put a team together for next year because we had a lot of juniors on the team,” said veteran Sports Performance club director and 18 Elite coach Rick Butler. “Once we got into the season, the team was passing so well. We had great passing all year, and we had a great setter.”
The setter Butler is referring to is Lauren Carlini, generally considered her class’s top recruit. Butler also noted the combination of that superior passing and the phenomenal skills of Carlini helped Sports Performance hit .360 as a team for the year. That number ballooned to .390 in Orlando.
“Lauren is such a great setter to begin with,” said Butler. “She was able to spend her time at the net instead of running around. That made it so much easier to execute our offense.”
Butler noticed the team started kicking its play into high gear around March.
“We had a good year up to that point, but in March they started to mature and develop, and come the second half of the season they were practicing and playing at a very high level,” he said. “They weren’t making a lot of mistakes. We had a middle [Brittany Pavich] that hit .511, we were passing at a high level, and we had very good ball control. We were a good first-contact team that just didn’t make a lot of errors.”
Butler added that middle Samantha Condon hit close to .400, giving Sports Performance a pair of high-percentage terminators.
“Both Brittany and Sammy played outstanding,” he said.
Condon said the team was ultra-focused dating back to the first day of practice. “We all had the desire to win,” she said. “We all knew what we wanted to do from the beginning. We all strived for the same goal and we worked hard to attain it. We were so dedicated to each other. We played for each other. It was a nice atmosphere to play in this year.”
Right-side hitter Alysia Baznik added that the high level of team chemistry was yet another weapon in the team’s bag of tricks.
“This is probably the best team I’ve been on in terms of team chemistry. I would never trade this group of girls for anything. I felt comfortable with them. We were just a bunch of girls who worked hard and had the same mindset to do the best and win at the end. Everybody worked hard to do so well. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Butler noted that while Sports Performance was much more than a team headlined by Carlini, the current University of Wisconsin freshman played a critical role in where the team ended up.
“She deserves a lot of credit,” remarked Butler. “So much has been said about her. She’s as good as I’ve seen at this level.”
Condon added that the ability to operate at high speeds during the matches gave the team a distinct advantage.
“Our speed was our strongest asset,” she said. “We worked hard to run a fast offense. We worked well as a team. We had great individual players, but putting it all together as a team is what made us so successful.”
With a junior-dominated roster, Sports Performance will have the firepower to excel next season as well.
“We thought we were looking more toward 2014 but they put together the best year possible,” Butler praised. “We have a strong core coming back. We have a lot of power and most of our primary passers are coming back. I think we are going to have a very competitive team next year as well.”
This year’s national title win continues Sports Performance’s recent string of dominance at the AAU 18 Open level. Sports Performance won recent AAU titles in 2007, 2008, and 2010, finished second in 2011, and tied for third in 2009 and 2012. It finished the 2008 season 83-0 (the only junior volleyball team to ever go undefeated in a season).
“The kids here work hard and believe in the mission,” said Butler. “They come in here to be the best they can be. Our club wants to play well at the toughest level. We want the kids to be ready to play at the college level. Hopefully this shows we’re doing a good job.”
In addition to Carlini, the team featured a host of players who will play at the next level. That list includes outside hitter Maddie Haggerty (Nebraska), Pavich (Boston College), Condon (Oakland University), outside hitter Baznik (Western Michigan), libero/defensive specialist Katie Baki (Southern Illinois), and setter Kate Federico (Clemson). Federico, Haggerty, and Pavich are just starting their senior high school seasons.
Carlini was named the AAU 18 Open MVP, while Haggerty and Baznik earned All-American honors.
Originally published in November 2013