The Balboa Bay 18 Blue boys team’s greatest weapon this season?
It had too many weapons.
Coach Rocky Ciarelli’s team went 10-1, including a 3-0 run through gold-bracket play to win the 18 Open title at the recent USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships in Columbus, Ohio. It was Balboa Bay’s second 18 open title in a row and the current group’s third gold medal in four years.
“We were a good all-around volleyball team,” said Ciarelli, a long-time Southern California high school and club coach. “There wasn’t a skill we couldn’t do. For me it was easy. I just rolled out the balls and stayed out of the way. It’s a group that does everything well. We were good in every area of the game whether it was passing, serving, or blocking. We ran a faster offense that people weren’t used to seeing.”
Setter Carlos Rivera (Long Beach State) was named the 18 Open MVP and was joined on the All-American team in Columbus by right side Garrett Halsey (BYU), libero Cole Paxson (USC) and outside hitter Cole Pender (UCLA).
“We had an opposite kid who hit ‘D’ and that makes a big difference at that level. When we were in system we could run that when we wanted. Most teams will send the block to the quick hitter and the outside hitter. It’s tough to keep the blocker over there and that helped open our offense up. It’s real hard when four hitters are coming at you,” said Ciarelli, the boys’ coach at Newport Harbor High School.
“This whole team played well. We had a libero, Cole Paxton, who was outstanding and one of our outsides, Cole Pender, was great. All the guys who started could have been All-Americans. We also had a good bench. It was easy being the coach of this team.”
Ciarelli added the team was equally up to task on defense.
“We were very good passing out of system,” he said. “We were a good passing team, which made it very difficult to block for the other team.”
Balboa Bay had a strong run leading up to nationals, winning the Junior Boys Classic and the Boys Invitational. Balboa Bay lost in the quarterfinals to Santa Monica Beach Club at the Boys Holiday Classic.
“This was a very consistent team that played well all the time,” said Ciarelli, who estimated the team lost less than five matches the entire season. “Back in the fall we had 13 kids and we played them all and they all played well. This team got better as the tournaments went along.”
Ciarelli, who has coached four teams to open titles and was an assistant on another, noted the group has a championship pedigree, winning 15 and 17 open gold and taking a silver at 16s.
“You get to those 17 and 18s years and it gets tougher,” he said. “I can’t think of too many teams that won 17 and 18. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
Rivera said the Balboa Bay players’ familiarity with each other made a huge difference.
“We’ve been playing together for a couple years now,” he said. “We get along really well. The chemistry on this year’s team was unbelievable. I’ve never been on a team that had this much chemistry. We also were very skilled. When you have skilled players come together with that type of chemistry that is what makes a very good team.”
Rivera noted the team never wavered from its goal of getting its hand raised in 18 open.
“We kept it together and kept our cool,” he said. “Every day we woke up we knew we would have to be on our best game. We knew teams would bring their 100 (percent). We knew we were going to see the real thing every match.
“Our attitude and how we saw things is what helped us do well this year. This was our last year. We decided, ‘Let’s go all-out and give it our best.’ It was our last opportunity to. We’re going to college next year so let’s show everybody what we have. I’m very happy with how things turned out. All the sacrifices we made and all the hours of practice and all the hard times — it all paid off.”
The San Gabriel Elite 17 Roshambo finished third in 17 Open at the girls’ junior national championships in Minneapolis, concluding a long journey for coach Ben Diaz’s squad.
“We figure out ways to win,” said Diaz after his team dropped an exciting three-set match to eventual national-champion TAV after winning the first set.
“We’ve battled through a lot of injuries and adversity. “We’re healthy now and we have everybody at this tournament.”
One of San Gabriel’s other losses came to Austin Juniors in the gold bracket. Austin Juniors went on to face TAV for the title.
San Gabriel’s Kelli Barry recognized that while her team wasn’t that tall, it made up for it in other areas.
“TAV is a very tall and aggressive team,” she said. “We aren’t tall, but we use our versatility and our energy. Our energy was very high against them. We shut them down mentally the first set and we were just as energized the second and third sets.”
Barry, a University of San Diego recruit, is equally proud of how San Gabriel worked its way through a variety of injuries during the season.
“We had players hurt at different times of the season,” she said. “It shows how each player contributes to the team. We don’t have individuals. We all play as a team.”
Eight of San Gabriel’s 10 players are committed to play at the next level, including Barry, Marin Grote (Washington), Kylie Robinson (Oregon), Ellis DeJardin (Yale), Allison Martinez (Long Beach State) and Serena Gray (Penn State). Robinson and DeJardin were named to the all-tournament team in Minneapolis. Grote, Robinson and Gray all made the VolleyballMag.com 25 Underclassmen to Watch List earlier this year.
More injuries: Another team stung by the injury bug was A5 Mizuno 16-1 Gabe from Atlanta. Despite playing at less than full strength at key positions, A5 went 8-2 in Minneapolis and finished tied for third. A5 lost to TAV 16 Black in the Gold Bracket play. TAV finished second in the tournament.
“One of our top middles (Meghan Froemming) tore her ACL and our starting setter (Alexa Fortin) hurt her ankle,” said A5 coach Gabe Aramian. “We still won three qualifiers and have been able to pull through from adversity.”
A5’s Gabby Gonzales said the team’s injury situation served as a key motivator. “We have been able to have more confidence in everybody on the team,” she said. “Everybody plays a part on the team.”
Aramian said the quality of competition on the girls’ juniors circuit continues to skyrocket. “At the qualifiers we were either lucky or unlucky to play every good team,” he said. “And then you get to here (junior nationals) and every single match is at an extremely high level. There is no room for error. Every match you see a good team.”
Gonzales added: “We’ve faced really good competition this year and that’s prepared us for the end of the year.”
Pieces to the puzzle: One of Texas Image 16 Mizuno Ray’s wins in Minneapolis came early on in pool play against eventual 16 Open national champions Mintonette Sports in three sets. TIV won the final two sets.
TIV coach Ray Manly noted his team was playing with a different lineup due to an injury to outside hitter Audrey Nalls. Because of that, normal libero Jullian Dits moved to a hitting position and Allison Wells shifted to libero.
“We challenged the players to step up,” Manly said. “We played some great defense (against Mintonette). We know we live on defense, but we still have some big hitters with Molly Phillips, Londyn Gray and Azhani Tealer.”
TIV, which had two second-place qualifier finishes to its credit this year, lost to Mintonette earlier in the season at Indianapolis. “We knew we would have to battle them,” Manly said. “They are a great team with no weaknesses. I think we surprised them.”
Manly said his team used the first part of the season to get its motor running.
“The first half of the season through the Tour of Texas was more training than worrying about getting a win,” Manly said. “We ran seven different lineups. By the time we got to Indy, we had a standard rotation. We picked it up and got better.”
Dits said Manly calls the team a “20-point team.”
“He jokes all the time when we get a team tied at 20 we can run with them,” she said. “We have the ability to push through. Against Mintonette, we had strong intensity the whole time. At no point did I not think we would come back. We’ve overcome injuries this year and have had different people step up when we have needed them to.”