Chicago treated the San Jose, California-based Bay to Bay club well at the recent Boys Winter Championships qualifier.

Bay to Bay sent five squads to McCormick Place in Chicago with four making the open finals, including wins at 15 and 16.

Bay to Bay club director Arielle Houlihan noted Bay to Bay played in three January qualifiers.

“January is a fun month for us,” she said. “It is a lot of volleyball in a short amount of time, but it really prepares our athletes to play at the highest level. Playing in the four finals was really special this year. We are looking forward to carrying this over to the summer in Anaheim and Reno (boys junior nationals).

Bay to Bay’s 15-1 team won the title at 15 Open, going 8-0 and defeating WPVC 15 Armour out of Florida in the finals.

“The team played consistent, calm and confident, while determined to finish with a win,” coach Matthew Frankenstein said. “Our ball control and defense was very good.”

Sudhit Rao and Owen Smith led the back row for Bay to Bay.

“With Sudhit and Owen, the ball didn’t hit the floor too much,” Frankenstein said. “Every player we had showed up to perform, and every player delivered beyond expectation. This is a group of tenured champions hungry for another win. I feel their ability to overcome team injuries during bid season hints at a positive summer in Anaheim and Reno.”

Bay to Bay’s 16s team also won the title in Chicago, but not before enduring some challenging logistical issues.

Coach Chad Gordon’s squad, which went 7-1 in the tournament and defeated Canadian-based Thundercats in the championship match, had difficulties getting into Chicago due to weather. Gordon noted the tournament directors switched Bay to Bay to the PM wave so it could play with six players.

“We finally had enough to play and survived our pool Day 1, losing to a solid Adversity team,” he said. “We rebounded on days two and three. We reached the finals, only to lose our starting setter after the first set due to an early flight. To his credit, our opposite, who had played a 6-2 earlier this year, rose to the occasion and we were able to finish out the finals in two. Our staff is ecstatic to get back in the gym after the high school season and continue building on a fall full of learning and growth.”

The Bay to Bay 17-1 team finished second at 17 Open, going 7-1. 352 Elite out of Florida defeated Bay to Bay in the championship. Coach Matt Houlihan noted himself and wife, Arielle (Bay to Bay’s club director), were not in Chicago due to the impending birth of their second daughter.

Assistant coach Josh Stewart (a Pepperdine 2018 graduate) took the controls in Chicago. The Houlihans were able to watch every match on the BallerTV feed.

“We were fortunate to play those last two weekends with our Open bid in hand, so we were able to take great steps as a team,” Matt Houlihan said. “We look forward to getting back into the gym with our guys soon. We can’t wait for junior nationals in Reno.”

Team Rockstar 18s in Chicago

Team Rockstar 18s — The Southern California-based Team Rockstar 18s squad made the trek east to Chicago at the Boys Winter Championships and came away with 18 Open gold there.

Coach Matt Fuerbringer’s squad went 8-1 in the Windy City, defeating suburban Chicago-based Future 18 Elite in the final.

“We have been working hard all year on playing hard, but also being in control of our emotions,” he said. “It’s not always easy to balance when you are competing. This tournament, our boys competed so hard and played with a lot of fire, but when we faced adversity we stuck to our game plan, trusted our teammates and kept our composure. I was very proud of our growth in this area. Technically, we dug more balls than we usually do and did a great job converting those digs into points.”

Fuerbringer was particularly impressed with the team’s composure in the quarterfinals against Sports Performance, another suburban Chicago-based squad.

“We had a big comeback in the quarterfinals against a very good SPRI team,” he said. “We won the first, lost the second and got down by four in the third. Both teams were really battling on the court and there was over-the-top trash talking on both sides, so it was a pretty heated match. In the end we made a couple more plays than they did and got the win, but both teams played great.”

Defense again stepped to the forefront in the title match. “We really dug the ball well and seemed to win the big rallies in the sets we won,” said Fuerbringer. “I was also very proud of how the boys responded after ending the second set very poorly.”

While players such as Sam Collins, Dane Johnson, Matt Iamaeleva and Sinjin Choi were key cogs, Fuerbringer stressed the entire Rockstar roster stepped it up throughout the tournament.

“This really is a true team,” he said. “Everyone is consistently contributing. All the boys contributed in this tournament from our leading point-scorer all the way down the bench.”

Collins and Johnson are headed to UC Santa Barbara, while Iamaeleva is a Long Beach State recruit. “We have lots of other great kids who still are uncommitted,” Fuerbringer noted.

Rockstar will reconvene after the high school season. “We need to keep getting more consistent in our side-out game and continue to develop our serving if we want to reach our ultimate goal of JO gold.”

Future 18 Elite — Rockstar’s 18 Open title opponent Future 18 Elite is loaded with the top talent from the Chicagoland area.

Coach Jacob Stone’s team came out of McCormick Place’s South Hall with a 29-7 overall record after going 6-3 in Chicago.

“The boys played with confidence and a level head, not letting the losses that we took get to them,” he said. “This was most evident when we were able to defeat a team that we had lost to earlier in the tournament. Our strongest suit is our size and power, and the boys played to that strength with aggressive play.”

Stone liked how his team played early in the Rockstar match.

“In both the first and second sets we did a great job of staying in control of the match, never letting Rockstar get more than one or two points in a row,” he said. “Our serve-receive was on point, which allowed us to get the matchups at the net we wanted. Credit to Rockstar, they did an excellent job of slowing the match down and not letting us get in our groove. The match slipped from our fingers when Rockstar began to pick apart our defense with some well-placed balls.”

Stone noted Future was down 6-2 in the second set and went on an eight-point run started by a big Zeo Meyer (Wheaton-Warrenville South High School, BYU recruit) block, followed by strong serving.

Stone referenced a win against Yorktown in the first round of the Gold playoffs. Future lost to Yorktown in the first day of the tournament.

“We were able to find an answer for their outside,” he said. “The boys showed an incredible ability to run away with games with their energy.”

Stone was particularly pleased with the play of middle blockers Bryce Walker out of Wheaton St. Francis High School and a Purdue-Ft. Wayne commit, and Jimmy Meinhart out of Glenbard West High School who is uncommitted at this point.

“We did not come up against a team that was able to stop them out of the middle,” Stone said. “They both did an outstanding job blocking.”

Also helping were Glenbard West’s Ben Harrington (Princeton) and Meyer. “Having players such as Ben and Zeo makes things easy as a coach with both being consistently excellent on the court,” Stone said.

Junior Evan Markworth (Lyons Township High School, uncommitted) also raised his play. “Evan played some of the best volleyball I have seen him play in his time at the club,” Stone said. “He made some key offensive plays when the team needed him to.”

Meyer, Harrington and Walker are the team captains.

“Our three captains are doing an excellent job of leading this team and finding a way to stand out on an already incredibly talented team,” Stone said. “These three players have the ability to completely take over a game, which is very fun to watch.

“This is an incredibly talented group of kids that loves the game of volleyball. As a coach, they are a joy to be around. We are an excellent offensive team that can run away with any game, however to allow our big hitters to be successful, our defense and serve-receive has to improve. One dig is all it will take for us in order to get a kill. The boys are getting there.”

Warren clinched a bid in Rochester

Warren Sixpack 18-1 — The New Jersey-based Warren Sixpack 18-1s team didn’t lose a set (16-0) en route to winning the 18 Open title at the recent Rochester (New York) Can-Am qualifier. The 8-0 run moved Six Pack to 25-4 overall, which covers three local tournaments and two bid tournaments.

“The boys have been putting in the time in the gym to get better,” coach Krys Pescinski said. “I have been telling them all season that this is one of the most talented teams I have ever coached, and if they put the work in at practice we will see the results in games. It’s the team-wide mindset that everyone contributes, whether you are a starter or a bench guy. Everyone trusts that in the moment, when we need a guy to step up, everyone can do it.”

A pair of key cogs for Sixpak have been outside hitter Chris Larkin and middle Toby Ezeonu.

“Chris has been fantastic all year,” said Pescinski. “He went from being a talented, but streaky hitter to a more consistent all-around player. His commitment to working on defense and blocking, while still retaining his hitting abilities has made him an all-around force. We have a very balanced team, so he doesn’t have to do it all, but he definitely wants the ball in key moments, and in Rochester, he made the most of those opportunities. Chris has been incredible. He always had the talent, but it was up to him to decide to harness it and really focus on becoming a true six-rotation player.”

Setter Griffin Fiesler has been around the program for a decade dating back to when Pescinski coached his oldest brother, Jack. “Griffing has such a good feel for the game and command of the offense that he is truly able to take advantage of all the weapons we have on the court,” Pescinski said.

Ezeonu played on the 18s team last year as well.

“It was nice to add him to our team this year,” Pescinski said. “At 6-7 with a ridiculous vertical and a wingspan you can’t imagine, not only is he an animal at the net, but his mere presence opens up the block for our hitters and changes the way other teams run their offenses as well.”

Pescinski said it took the whole roster contributing to come out on top in the finale against New England-based SMASH 18-1.

“The championship was a great example of every player on the team being ready to contribute and play whatever position was necessary,” he said. “Due to injury, we were down to only one true outside in the finals, leading to some guys needing to play out of position. Our starting opposite played outside and our defensive specialist played opposite. We had no subs, but every guy was ready to do whatever it took to get the win. We went in feeling like it was our tournament to lose after picking up a huge second-set comeback in the semifinals against Niagara Frontier.”

Sixpack dug deep as well in the Niagara contest.

“It was a huge win,” the coach said. “Midway through the second set we were down maybe 19-15 and our outside went down with a twisted ankle. The only sub we hadn’t used yet was one of our middles, Justin Wright. Even though we were losing and could have just let it go to a third set, the boys kept fighting. We adjusted our serve-receive to put our hitters in the spots they were most comfortable and Griffin did a great job of running an offense that took advantage of those unique looks.”

Sixpack got down 24-18 and ran off six in a row to tie the game, “through a combination of aces, blocks, timely digs and big swings to eventually put ourselves in a position to win (28-26),” Pescinski said.

Ezeonu is headed to Penn State, while Fiesler is an NJIT commit. Outside Mark Berry is headed to Sacred Heart, while libero Alex Work will play at Springfield and Vaughn McConnell is headed to Arcadia.

“We have to continue to focus on our serving, serve-receive and defense,” Pescinski said. “We are trying to find the right balance for this group between aggressive serving, which can result in those high-variance games of lots of aces or lots of errors, or if we should be a smarter-serving team, allowing our blockers and defense more opportunities to make plays. Obviously, it was nice to win Can-Am, but the goal is to peak at the end of the season.”

The Thundercats from Ontario did well in Chicago

Thundercats 16U — The Thundercats Volleyball 16U team out of Richmond Hill, Ontario, brought eight players to the Boys Winter Championships in Chicago and ended up going 6-3 there in 16 Open.

“What led to our success I would say is that we serve tough and passed great all weekend, which always is the basis of success in volleyball,” coach Alesandro Marques noted. “But more importantly, the intensity and fighting attitude from this group was the best I have seen all year. Because of this, they played the best defense I have seen them play. We were aggressive with our secondary setting and our out-of-system attacking allowed us to steal critical points throughout sets. Another thing I would say is our setters trusted all our hitters, even when some had to play out of position, and we were able to run a balanced, efficient offense.”

Danill Hershtynovich, a 6-6 right side-outside hitter, led the team in kills and blocks in Chicago, while Justin Banks, a 6-2 outside, led the team in kill percentage and aces.

“Justin had to play middle the majority of this tournament due to our numbers, but he did not get libbed off in the back row because of his passing and backrow attacking abilities,” Marques noted.

Outside Marcus Cheung led the team in passing quality, serve quality and had the second-highest kill percentage in Chicago. The 5-10 Cheung has a 42-inch vertical. Setters Andrew Haber and Scott Dione also played well. Marques mentioned Hershtynovich, Banks, Cheung, Haber and Dione all are 15U eligible.

Thundercats avenged an earlier loss to Sports Performance in the quarterfinals, came back from being down 24-21 in the first set to OCVC and won in three in the semifinals before playing its ninth match of the weekend with eight players in the final against Bay to Bay.

“The boys fought hard the entire match,” Marques said. “We would have to play our very best to compete with Bay to Bay, and unfortunately we didn’t have the legs to finish the finals like we did the quarters and semis.”

Niagara Frontier 17 Gold — Niagara Frontier mowed through the 17 Open division at Rochester Can-Am, going 8-0 in matches and 16-1 in sets.

No shortage of key plays were made at Can-Am by the likes of setter Ethan Weislo, outside Jake Basinski and libero Jackson Strong.

“Ethan is starting to understand the intricacies of the game and how to effectively run an offense,” Niagara Frontier coach Justin Waldorf said. “He did an exceptional job in Rochester of keying on offensive mismatches and finding hot hitters. He is also our biggest weapon from the service line, leading the team in aces.”

Waldorf likes how Basinski turns things up a notch when the chips are on the line.

“Jake is a huge weapon for us on the outside, but one of his best attributes and something I appreciate the most as a coach is his ability to find another gear in big matches,” he said. “In tight matches and in the playoffs, you can always count on Jake to be playing his best volleyball. When that is the case, he’s going to be really tough to stop.”

Waldorf calls outsides Weislo and Basinski “super dynamic players,” he said. “They have a full complement of volleyball skills and IQ. These guys can score from anywhere on the court and they can do it efficiently. On top of that, they are both good for one or two blocks per match and for some amazing defensive plays. These two are leaders of our team and will definitely be strong players at the next level in a couple years.”

Libero Jackson Strong is “arguably one of the best athletes in any gym we walk into,” the coach said. “He proved yet again in this tournament that he can play at the highest levels. He anchored our serve-receive and defense and made a few plays in matches that could have easily gone down as a kill, but instead he makes a dig, which allowed us to manufacturer points in transition. Keep an eye on Jackson, because he is a really fun player to watch take over a match on defense, which is pretty rare, and he can run off a few points from his serve, too.”

Niagara downed Pace Bootlegger out of Rochester in the 17 Open title match.

“We took care of the ball on our side and dictated play on the opponent’s side of the net,” Waldorf explained. “We came up against a really strong Pace club, but they were often out of system, and we were able to key on their pin hitters during those plays. Again, we served really well and that allowed our blockers to effectively read their setter and hitters, and put up solid double blocks on the majority of their swings. Anchored by Jackson, we played really good defense around those blocks and were able to terminate in transition more often than not.”

Waldorf loved his team’s plan of attack in Rochester.

“We are a really tough serving team, which affords us a lot of extended runs, but what really drove our success in Rochester was not only our ability to dictate play form our serves, but also our exceptional passing in serve-receive,” he said. “We were able to go on long runs with our serves and side out efficiently through all attacking zones. When we are scoring out of the middle, back row and both pins, it is going to be tough for any team to match up against us, and that’s what we managed really well throughout the tournament, ball control and offensive variety.”

Niagara came back from a first-set loss to Warren Sixpack in the final match of the second day to win and then won its semifinal against Club Lehigh 25-6, 25-12, which allowed for some rest prior to the PACE contest.

Pace Bootlegger 15s at CanAm 2020

Pace Bootlegger 15 Black — A 9-0 record at Can-Am improved Pace to 18-4 overall, which includes a trip to California for the Boys Invitational and the Rochester Holiday Hopper tournament, which Pace played up a level at 16s.

Coach Adam Dake noted his team features a core that has been playing together since it was in the 11U division. “Two more joined at 13 and the final three joined this team in the last two years,” Dake added. “We have an unbelievably strong team-focused mentality.”

At Can-Am, 6-2 setter Parker Schoenl ran a diverse offense, while 6-0 outside Carter Dittman led the team in kills. Middle Will Kirchhoff (6-3) was a force at the net on the block, while defensive specialist Logan Romeika was key on defense and libero Zach Zian was a serve-receive stalwart.

Pace defeated New York-based LVC 15 Black in the 15 Open title match. “We approached the championship match knowing that this was our best opportunity for our bid to Reno,” Dake said. “We are an offensively focused team that can side-out well. This plus our ability to quickly adjust from what we saw on the other side of the net, along with learning from our own mistakes, allowed us to adjust our game plan and stay fluid.”

Dake noted the team’s trip to California was key. Pace finished 13th there. “It was a solid experience,” he said. “We were able to play five top-10 teams. Missing players hurt us, but did not detour us from the experience.”

Pace will play in a total of five qualifiers this season.

“We decided we would be one of the most traveled teams in the nation,” Dake said. “This would give us an opportunity to be challenged by the top teams in the country and raise our game to a higher level. The club goal has always been to be top 10 in the nation. This teams wants to push to be a top-five team and has dedicated itself to do the work necessary in the gym and on the court to accomplish that. With the outstanding contributions of Ethan Williams, Kenny Frankovich, Owen Pender, Robert Evangelists and Nick Yattaw, I feel this is a definite possibility.”

Rochester, New York-based HotShots 16 National won the 16 Open title at the recent Can-Am qualifier in Rochester.

Bids update — Here are the latest qualified teams in the Open divisions for the 2020 boys junior national championships in Reno.
18s Open: Team Rockstar, 949, Arizona Fear, Balboa Bay, Bay to Bay, Chicago Bounce, Coast, Future, MB Surf, Sports Academy, Milwaukee, MVP Academy, Ocean Bay, Pace Bootlegger, Spike and Serve, SCVC, SMASH, Sports Performance, The HBC, Uno, Vanguard, Warren Sixpack, Wave, Yorktowne
17s Open: Team Rockstar, 352 Elite, 949, Adversity, Annapolis, Arizona Fear, Balboa Bay, Bay to Bay, Club Lehigh, Coastal VA, HP St. Louis, MB Surf, MVVC, Niagara Frontier, OCVC, Pacific Rim, San Juan VC, SCVC, San Gabriel Elite, Wave, Yorktowne.
16s Open: 352 Elite, Arizona Fear, Balboa Bay 16 Blue, Balboa Bay 16 White, Bay to Bay, Coast, D1 Elite, Florida MOJO, HP St. Louis, K2C2, MB Surf, Milwaukee, MVP Academy, MVVC, Niagara Frontier, OCVC, Pacific Rim, Spike and Serve, Smash, Sports Performance, Vaqueros, Vegas United, Yorktowne
15s Open: Team Rockstar, A4, 352 Elite, 630 Volleyball 15-1, 630 Volleyball 15-2, 949, Adversity, Arizona Fear, Balboa Bay, Bay to Bay, Chicago Bounce, Durham Attack, Lockport VBC, MB Surf, Milwaukee Sting, Maryland Volleyball Program, MVVC, NCVC, Pace Bootlegger, SCVC, Ultimate, Wave, WPVC

Next time: A look at the Florida Fest and Southwest Boys Classic bid tournaments.

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