Seven 18 Open bids were awarded at three national qualifiers over MLK weekend. Here’s a recap of the action from Chicago, Nashville and Kansas City.
Circle City 18 Purple finished 7-1 and on top of the field at the Girls Winter Championships in the Windy City, where Sky High Adidas 18 Black and Legacy 18-1 Adidas also earned bids behind Circle City. It was a huge relief to Circle City coach Chris Due, who is coaching 18s for the first time and was privately fretting whether the 18s would get it done this go around. Michigan signee Brooke Humphrey was injured at the end of high school and is missing club, leaving Circle City short-handed at outside and that’s one reason Due was worried about qualifying.
He wasn’t sure how fully in this bunch would be. Things weren’t looking hot at practices leading up to the Chicago trip and last Wednesday Due actually stopped practice to get on the girls about it. His message was straightforward as he basically told the players if you want to play volleyball then be here, if not they should leave. Due coached most of them when they were in 15s and he knew one thing about them that could carry them far with the proper focus and effort.
“The team’s chemistry is amazing,” he said. “When I coached the 15s group it was amazing then. It helps in being successful. They love each other on and off the court. That carries over because it makes them work hard for each other.”
Even then, Circle City was perilously close to getting eliminated on Day 1 and turning it into a long weekend. The Indiana club snuck past FC Elite 18 in three 24-26, 25-23, 25-21, in a three-team pool in its opening match. Sky High downed Circle City in the next outing 25-12, 17-25, 25-21. Circle City was able to advance by going 1-1 but was close enough to being beat by FC Elite and not advancing.
It turned around from there quickly. Circle City didn’t drop another contest, including downing Sky High 25-19, 25-18, in the finals rematch.
“I thought every game we played better and better,” Due said. “The girls wanted to play Sky High again. Believe it or not, but these girls have never won a tournament in their careers. They were motivated to get their first victory. Sky High was a little tired but we played such clean volleyball against them and Olivia (Utterback) was unstoppable. I would guess she had 12-15 kills. They had no answer for her. We just moved the ball around with our serving and kept the pressure on them.”
Circle City grinded out three-set victories over Metro 18 Travel and MichioChicago 18 National on Day 2 and then another over Vision 18 Gold in three 25-21, 16-25, 17-15, to open Day 3. Due thought it was over against the Nor Cal club when his team was trailing 14-12 in the last set.
“At 14-13, they get a great pass in serve receive and set the outside,” Due said. “She’s 1-on-1 and I’m thinking the match is over but Olivia steps in and thunderhoused her to tie it at 14 and we were able to finish it.”
Sweeping past Legacy 27-25, 25-23, allowed Circle City to clinch its bid before going on to defeat Sky High.
“Anytime the game was on the line the girls played at a whole other level,” Due said. “They stepped up and made plays in both sets against Legacy.”
Sky High and Coach Scott Harris had little idea what to expect over the weekend. Harris noted what a deep field he thought it was and it made for lots of competitive contests.
“You hear people say there are only 18 teams playing but they don’t say anything else,” Harris said. “The top 15 were really strong teams.”
Sky High was in desperation mode as Day 2 neared its conclusion. After going 2-0 on the opening day, Sky High dropped matches to Vision and Legacy but fortunately was in a three-team pool. That set up a crossover against MKE Sting 18 Gold, also 0-2. The loser would be knocked out from bid contention. Sky High swept 25-20, 25-22 to stay alive.
The bid came Sky High’s way after topping Michio and Adversity on Day 3 to reach the final. Both clubs are from the same Great Lakes region as Sky High, so beating both added something extra to qualifying.
“We came out and played our best volleyball on Day 3, except in the final,” Harris said. “We beat Circle City on Day 1 but they played better and we didn’t. It’s alright. We got a bid and finished second. I’m happy, especially in that field.”
Legacy, meanwhile, had an interesting first day as Coach Bryan Lindstrom and team learned about the new tie-breaking procedures. No longer at qualifiers does a three-way tie lead to one-game playoffs. Instead, it’s more similar to the Junior Nationals approach where head-to-head results are the first determining factor and a one-game playoff the last hope.
Lindstrom wasn’t aware of this though as Legacy was 2-0 and taking on 1st Alliance. By the old rules, Lindstrom knew he had first place locked up based on set percentage. Then 1st Alliance and Mizuno M1 18-1 could playoff for second place in a game to 25 after all three finished tied at 2-1.
Except, there was no playoff as the three in fact tied at 2-1. The new rules first looked at head-to-head but neither team beat the other two. Only then did it go to set percentage, which fortunately for Legacy still allowed the Michigan club to take first place. However, M1 was eliminated without getting to play to 25 as 1st Alliance moved on with the set percentage advantage.
After sweeping Vision and Sky High on Day 2, Legacy closed out with a three-set loss to Adversity. That set up a rematch with Vision to start Day 3, a match Legacy swept again. Yet, Circle City stopped Legacy, forcing Legacy into a rematch with Adversity for the final bid. Legacy pounced, taking care of business in straight sets 25-18, 25-12 and qualifying. Legacy reached the quarterfinals of 17 Open last summer with Lindstrom at the helm and the group is right back at it to start 2020.
“When we lost in three (to Adversity) that was a no-stress match,” Lindstrom said. “We were playing for seeding at that point. (In the rematch), we blocked them a handful of times and just played hard on defense. It made it hard for them to score when they were out of system. They’ll qualify. They are too good not to.”
MUSIC CITY CHAMPIONSHIPS
In Nashville, seeing that Mintonette Sports m.81 went 9-0 and 18-2 in sets to earn one of the three bids was a business-as-usual occurrence. Mintonette was the 17 Open silver medalist at JN’s last summer. Once Mintonette knew setter Scottee Johnson was back in the fold with the rest of the returners and not headed to Michigan early like VolleyballMag.com HS Player of the Year Jess Mruzik the Ohio club was set for another deep run at nationals.
Mintonette was the tournament favorite and the results proved it. After sweeping A5 Mizuno 18 Boba and Xceleration 18-1 in gold pool, Mintonette was in the gold bracket with North Pacific Jrs 18-1 Forefront, Union 18-1 Asics and Excel National 18 Red.
The bid was wrapped up by downing NPJ 25-20, 25-19, in the semis before facing Union in the final. Union got past Excel in straight sets 25-23, 25-21 to clinch its bid. That left NPJ and Excel playing for third place and last remaining bid. NPJ swept 25-16, 25-23, to join Mintonette and Union as qualified teams. Mintonette ended the weekend scraping past Union in three, 18-25, 25-20, 17-15.
Mintonette club director Max Miller was in Cleveland for the JVA Rock ‘N’ Rumble but kept close tabs on the 18s with direct feedback from Coach Ron Mahlerwein. Miller coached the 17s to silver and is well-aware of what this group is capable of doing in 18s. What stood out most to Miller he said was how improved Union looks to be after playing them in 17s a year ago.
“They were always good defensively but they added some firepower,” Miller said. “I actually thought they played better than us.”
Though the roster didn’t change for Mintonette, one of the focuses this season is getting girls comfortable doing things they didn’t last year. One example is working with Emily Londot on her passing to get her ready for the next level. Another is getting middle Maryanne Boyle some looks on the pin. All of it will have Mintonette back in the fold come the 18s championships in Reno in a few months.
“Looking at the teams which medaled last year, nobody coming in to the tournament had accomplished that,” Miller said. “Being the No. 1 seed, we knew we had a real strong opportunity to get out in first and it paid off.”
The feeling was after Mintonette there was great opportunity for two other teams to capitalize on a bid and lock up a spot early on as well. One was of course Union, as the Indiana club qualified for 17 Open and as Miller said, only improved as 18s. Losing to Mintonette was Union’s only setback over three days. The run included beating A5 in gold pool and Rockwood Thunder 18 Elite on Day 2. Both were in 17 Open a season ago.
A couple of other teams were humming along as well. NPJ, A5 and EC Power KOP 18 Royal were also undefeated as Day 3 action kicked off. A5’s only loss turned out to be against Union, while EC Power was undone for its only loss by NPJ. Meanwhile, NPJ earned an 18 Open spot last spring and was seeking its third Open bid in the past four seasons.
NPJ set itself up nicely with a solid Day 2. In a three-team pool, NPJ was able to sweep Top Select 18 Elite Blue and Elevation 18-1 to reach one of the gold pools. It seemed to set up NPJ favorably toward reaching the gold bracket as CUVC 18 Premier and EC Power were in the same pool. NPJ swept both to remain undefeated but ran up against Mintonette next for its only loss, setting up the showdown against Excel. NPJ closed it out in two 25-16, 25-23, for the bid.
“I couldn’t be happier,” NPJ coach Adam Ellis said. “I’m so proud of the kids. We went 8-1 and only lost to Mintonette, which won the tournament and we competed against them.”
NPJ had 10 practices under its belt before traveling across the country in hopes of qualifying early. NPJ waited until later in the season last year to earn a bid but qualifying in 18 Open is starting to become the norm for the club from Oregon.
“As a coaching staff you always want to qualify in Open but we are learning every year we do this it’s not about what we want but what the players want,” NPJ coach Mike Gee said. “They have to take ownership of what they want. The teams we have qualified they have been self-driven.”
Washington signee and outside Audra Wilmes helped power the offense along. Oregon State signee and setter Isabelle Szulczewski has been improving every year, while Portland commit and middle Ryann Gregg played like a “rockstar” all weekend Ellis said. Bridgette Smith carried her load on the outside well too and what also stood out to Ellis and Gee was the infectious energy created by the bench all weekend.
“The biggest difference is our seventh man,” Ellis said. “Our bench is unreal. They heap so much energy onto the court.”
KC MLK TOURNAMENT
In a field with eight teams, only one bid was up for grabs in Kansas City, site of next month’s Triple Crown Sports NIT. (Perhaps 18s teams don’t want to make two trips in three weeks to the same city?) Anyway, the path to qualifying was as straightforward as it comes because of it. Teams had to win the whole thing or go home without one.
“It kind of brings you back to the American division days,” MAVS KC 18-1 coach Beau Barnthson said.
While Barnthson said he was a little disappointed to see the hometown qualifier have so few teams he certainly wasn’t down on the results. MAVS, a powerhouse nationally in this age group in recent seasons, proved untouchable in going 9-0 and 18-1 in sets to capture the lone qualifying spot. MAVS topped local club KC Power 25-21, 26-24, in the final. Up 19-14 in the second set, MAVS let up some and watched as KC Power pulled ahead 24-21. However, the veteran MAVS squad held steady and didn’t panic, reeling off five straight points for the victory and avoiding a race to 15.
“Tied at 21 I’m calling timeout,” Barnthson said. “We needed to control our side of the net and be ready to do our jobs. This team is such a smart team to be down 24-21 and come back it just shows their resiliency and character.”
Knowing there was the lone bid it was really Barnthson’s message for the weekend. Beforehand he talked to the players about controlling their side of the net and doing their jobs. The rest would happen. A wake-up call came on Day 1 when Dynasty 17s Black stretched MAVS to three games before MAVS prevailed 25-18, 21-25, 15-12. Losing that set helped get the team on track for the rest of the weekend Barnthson said.
He knows he’s taking over a group that has plenty of experience. It works both ways Barnthson said. On one hand, he knows what they are capable of doing. Like remaining calm and pulling off a comeback down the stretch in Game 2 against KC Power to clinch a bid. But he said it also works against his team because there is no hiding out ever.
“They have to deal with taking everybody’s best shot,” Barnthson said. “They can’t go under the radar. Teams know who we are and there is that target on our back. It helps keep us motivated knowing that teams are coming for us.”