There’s something to be said for familiarity.
Their ties to one another helped the 949 18 Black boys’ team in the end, even though they didn’t exactly have a walk in the park en route to winning their first 18 Open junior national title. Injuries, players stepping into new positions, and an extremely competitive field forced 949 to reach down and find that little extra necessary to come out on top.
In the end, the club team based out of San Clemente, Calif., did just that, downing Balboa Bay 18 Hurley to win the national title in Reno, Nev.
“We had some challenges during the season with injuries, and we didn’t have a very deep roster to begin with,” said 949 coach Bob Yoder. “We had 11 to start with and then we were training with 9 or 10 guys. We adjusted. We had 10 guys at junior nationals and three of them were defensive specialists. We weren’t real deep, but most of these guys have been playing together since their 14s year. It was neat for them to finish the way they did with winning the gold medal. It was a great finish, for sure. We had a pretty good year.”
In Reno, 949 went a perfect 11-0 and went 22-4 in sets. Going into the final day of action, 949 was taken to three sets only twice, but was extended to the limit in its first two final-day matches against Ultimate and Manhattan Beach Surf. But 949 survived a 36-38, 25-20, 17-15 match against MB Surf to advance to the final round against Balboa Bay where it scored a 25-18, 25-16 victory.
“A lot of us had been together for four years,” said 949’s Will Parke, now a freshman at Cal State Northridge. “We played well together. That’s what it came down to. We also had very good coaching and that helped us stick it out through those tough matches.”
949 club co-director Brandon Taliaferro noted that the likes of Jack and Lucas Yoder, Connor Palumbo, Garret Costello, and Carl Nolet were part of that first team at 949. Taliaferro, who helped UCLA win two NCAA titles and later went on to play with the U.S. national team, was the group’s coach up until this season when Bob Yoder, a former Olympian, took over.
Taliaferro, who co-directs the club along with Justin DeBlasio, said it was clear from the time the guys were freshmen that they were going to make a great team. “There are some pretty good players there. They took a silver at 15 and got fifth as 16s and a bronze last year. The nucleus of the group has been around for years. That familiarity definitely helped them win the gold. They had been in finals and had won tournaments as a group. They had been pushed to the limit before. They used that experience to help them prevail this time.”
949 suffered a major blow when highly touted opposite Christian Hessenauer went down with an injury.
“He was hurt most of the fall and came back and played in January, but wasn’t able to play in the spring,” said Yoder. “We were planning on having him. We had to adjust the lineup and it took a little bit for us to figure out the best combinations.”
Nolet ended up moving over to the opposite position. He had been a setter, but had played opposite during the high school season.
The play of Lucas Yoder, in particular, greatly aided the team’s momentum.
“Lucas was our best player all year and got even better through the course of the tournament. He was very strong,” said Bob Yoder, who is Lucas Yoder’s uncle.
Yoder’s other nephew, Jack, gave the team a distinct edge from the setting position. Jack is the son of Bob’s brother Jim, and Lucas is the son of Bob’s brother David. Both of the young Yoders are now freshmen at USC.
“Jack has always been athletic, but he got much better the last month in particular,” said Bob Yoder. “He ran a legit offense that had balance. We had Lucas, who is probably the best player in any gym, and after that it was very balanced. We worked hard to get distribution out of the middle. In the past, we relied too much on the outside and opposite positions.”
“What made us so strong is we didn’t have many weak points,” added 949’s Nick Amado. “Everybody on the team came in and did the job the way they were supposed to do it.”
“They didn’t have to rely on one or two guys,” said DeBlasio. “Different players stepped up at different times.”
Bob Yoder, who was assisted on the bench by his son Cory, was impressed with how the team fared against a tough 18 Open field in Reno.
“It’s cliché, but these guys never quit,” Bob said. “I think there were nine teams there that probably could have won it. We got taken to three [sets] four different times. There was incredible balance in the tournament and these guys never quit. They gave themselves a chance to win the tournament. They overcame some obstacles, and it all came together for them.”
Lucas Yoder, Jack Yoder, Nolet, and Amado earned all-tournament honors in Reno. Lucas Yoder was named the 18 Open MVP.
949 finished the season with a 60-6 overall mark and went 118-22 in sets.
Originally published in November 2013