Talent-loaded Triple Crown NIT: “The competition is top-notch”

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The concept of customer service is simple.

Provide good service to your customers and good things tend to happen.

Case in point is this weekend’s Triple Crown Sports Preseason National Invitational Tournament at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

This girls’ club tournament has exploded in four years into an event that now features 212 teams from across the country in five age divisions (14s through 18s).

The lure? How about a tournament that blurs association affiliation lines while also attracting not only the top club teams in the country, but more than 400 college coaches in what figures to be a memorable President’s Day weekend event.

And it all started based on a long-standing customer-service tenet : Getting feedback from the customer.

“We flew in 25 to 30 of the top club officials to our corporate office in Colorado,” tournament director Sean Hardy told VolleyballMag.com. “We asked them what is missing in the sport of volleyball. One of the common themes was the split of USA Volleyball and JVA/AAU. The top JVA/AAU teams were not seeing their old buddies from USA anymore. What if something could happen where we would be able to get that going again?”

Hardy noted that volleyball people missed seeing all the top clubs under one roof at events, plus there were concerns about quality of play in traditionally seeded tournaments, particularly early on in the playing process.

So Triple Crown listened. And listened some more.

“We asked ourselves,” Hardy said, “if we build this, will they come?”

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The TCS NIT 15s, 16s, 17s and 18s divisions each have 48 teams, while the 14s division has 20 teams.

The answer has been a resounding yes. The result is a tournament loaded with the top teams in the country (regardless of affiliation) that will be playing a format, shall we say, that will test the best of the best.

“From the beginning, Sean and the Triple Crown staff have had a vision of making this a great event,” said Troy Tanner, club director of Southern California-based Tstreet. “Part of their plan was to get feedback from club owners, directors and coaches regarding formats, locations and dates. They are great to work with.”

In the NIT format, once the top eight seeds are identified (seeding is determined using three different sets of statistical data), they all are considered No. 1 seeds and are geographically cross-pooled so teams are not playing other teams from their regions or teams they play regularly. The results of those first three-four matches will determine who gets the No. 1-8 seeds in the 32-team tournament (15s through 18s) that starts on the second day of competition.

Ron Kordes, of Kentucky-based KiVA, is a big fan of the level of competition that will be in Salt Lake as well as the horde of college coaches who will be on hand.

“We’re always looking for great competition and exposure for our athletes as far as recruiting is concerned,” Kordes said. “This tournament certainly offers both of those elements. Obviously, we can get both the competition and the exposure by staying home. However, this tournament offers variety. We get to see clubs we normally do not see during the course of the season. I believe that was the ultimate decision for us.”

“We decided to compete in the Triple Crown because it already is one of the most competitive events of the year,” said Scott Harris, club director and coach of the suburban Chicago-based Sky High adidas 18 Black team. “The format is interesting in that the tournament director has chosen to power pool the top teams, which gives these teams a chance to play many of the other top-ranked teams in the nation. The teams within the power pools are playing for position in the single-elimination playoff bracket and teams outside the power pools must play their way in.

“This event will be a great way to prepare our team for USA nationals in April, given the strength and the pressure which comes along with such an event.”

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This year’s championship matches in the 14, 16 and 18s divisions will be broadcast on ESPN3.

The bottom-half of the seeded teams in each division, as Harris noted, still can earn their way into the top bracket.

“This format allows us to do all the things these clubs have asked for,” Hardy said. “Competition-wise you can’t ask for anything more. Overall, you will see top-notch competition.”

Hardy said he isn’t overly concerned about the whole USA-JVA/AAU dynamic.

“We’re the new guy on the block,” he said. “We’re not a governing body. We’re an independent. We’re kind of like Switzerland. We get along with everybody. Our goal is to run a top-quality event and we’re doing that. I don’t think all that other stuff matters.”

Hardy also downplayed the addition of another tournament to an already popular President’s Day playing weekend.

“We’re one event on one weekend,” he says. “Vegas has 650 teams over there. There’s plenty of volleyball to go around. Nobody is hurting. Getting teams to play is a non-issue, really. The first couple years of this we couldn’t find the right weekend and we didn’t want to jump on a big weekend until we had the team support. When that happened, we decided to compete on the biggest volleyball day in the country on President’s Day.”

To say the least, club directors and coaches are fired up about playing in the Triple Crown event.

Michigan Elite club director Vince Muscat is curious to see how the local power league his club plays compares. Michigan Elite plays in a power league with K2, Munciana and KiVA, all Triple Crown entrants.

“We decided to play in the event because of the exposure and different competition,” Muscat said. “I also am excited to see how our power league does in the event. I believe we play in the best power league in the country. I’ll wait to pass judgement on the format until after the event, but I do think Sean and Triple Crown are going above and beyond to accommodate teams and make it a great event.”

Bob Westbrook, club director of Atlanta-based A5, said his team is on the lookout for the best competition possible.

“A5’s desire to play in the Triple Crown tournament was born out of our desire to be a national-level club,” he said. “That naturally means playing the best competition possible, including the best West Coast teams that are very hard for us to access. The fact that, at least currently, this event has attracted most of the better clubs from all geographical regions just enhances its attractiveness to us. It’s very challenging for us both geographically and financially, but we feel participation is a critical path with regard to continuing our ability to compete at the top levels of club in the country.”

A5 was one of the first five clubs to participate in the event.

“We love the power-pool format,” Westbrook said. “We’ve benefitted enormously from both the format and the depth of competition. Now that it is a preseason NIT, all the teams from all the clubs, for the most part, still are in development. To be able to play top teams in the country on the first day, get our feet underneath us and then still be in the mix the second day in outstanding.”

Texas Advantage Volleyball director LJ Sariego said TAV is getting the best of both worlds in Salt Lake.

“The competition is top-notch,” he said. “From the first match to the final match, it doesn’t get much better. Plus, I enjoy playing the JVA teams again.”

This will be Milwaukee Sting’s first trip to Triple Crown. Jenny Hahn, JVA’s current executive director, one of the original founders of Milwaukee Sting and now a member of its board of directors, said the club’s reason for entering the event is simple.

“The reason we did enter was because of the depth of competition,” Hahn said.

“We chose to play in this tournament because it is loaded with tough teams.  It is also quite convenient that it is in SLC,” said Reed Carlson, director and co owner of Club V Volleyball, which is located in the host city. “I do like the format quite a bit. Being able to play the toughest competition without risk of being eliminated the first day is fun. It gives you an opportunity to experiment with line ups and the guaranteed matches against the best teams. It makes the tournament worthwhile.

“In a qualifier you may play a few teams that don’t stretch you whereas at the Triple Crown you will be stretched a lot. I think only one team in all the age groups went undefeated last year.”

KiVA’s Kordes is no stranger to the power-pool format.

“I had the opportunity to play in the AAU championships in Chicago in the mid-1980s and (the late) Jim Coleman was running the event,” Kordes recalled. “We played with a power-pool format and I thought it was great. It sort of disappeared and I am glad to see it come back. I know AAUs did it for the 18 Open division last summer and I hope they continue and allow it to pass onto other age groups as well. I love the idea of power pools. If you qualify to be in one of them, you have great matches from day one and match one.”

After working with CBS Sports Network in previous years, this year’s championship matches in the 14, 16 and 18s divisions will be broadcast on ESPN3.

“ESPN3 allows us more flexibility with reaching a few more people after the fact,” Hardy said. “We’ve worked with ESPN3 in other sports we do. It’s nice to have them on board.”

Tstreet’s Tanner said the lure of playing on television is not lost upon his club.

“Televising the final always has been a big deal to Tstreet,” he said. “The level of play warrants that type of exposure and we enjoy playing our way toward that reward.”

The 15s, 16s, 17s and 18s divisions each have 48 teams, while the 14s division has 20 teams.

Hardy told VolleyballMag.com he’s expecting 425 teams for next year’s event.

“We’ll be in the whole convention center next year,” he said.

The event has grown from 37 teams in its first year, to 70 three years ago, 150 last year and now to its current 212 teams.

Triple Crown, based in Fort Collins, Colo., manages roughly 300 youth events across the country in a variety of sports and last year announced plans to produce a revamped women’s college volleyball NIT which will called the National Invitational Volleyball Championship.

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