Presented by TallSlim Tees
At the beginning of new club seasons inexperience tends to be commonplace with most teams — the byproduct of inevitable roster turnover from the previous year.
While HPSTL 18 Royal falls squarely into that category, the St. Louis squad has taken a crash course on how to overcome that impediment, as evidenced by it winning the recent Boys Winter Volleyball Championships at McCormick Place in Chicago. With a maximum of nine USA Volleyball national open bids per age bracket were available, HPSTL went a perfect 9-0 in the Windy City.
“We have a team that is relatively inexperienced playing together,” HPSTL 18s coach Matt Martin said. “Five of our players are new compared to this time last season. The more we play together, the more impressed I’ve been with how we’re learning to play as a team.”
HPSTL downed a strong AZ Fear 18s team in the Chicago finale.
“The championship match was against a really good Arizona Fear team coached by John Beckwith, who is one of the best in the business,” Martin explained. “We put some consistent pressure on them serving throughout the match. Our passing was very consistent as well, which forced their block to take some chances.”
Martin noted Fear lost only two matches in back-to-back weekend events at the SCVA Juniors Boys’ Invitational (where Fear finished fifth) and in Chicago.
“That’s really tough to do when you are traveling back-to-back weekends,” he said.
HPSTL was led by junior outside hitter Matthew Tompkins, who has committed to Ohio State.
“Matthew played really well from behind the end line and was passing just as well,” said Martin.
Also sparking HPSTL was senior outside hitter Auston Bonté (undecided), who Martin noted also passed at a high level and still produced a strong swing at the end of the tournament. Senior setter Ryan Whealen (New York University) was lauded for keeping all his attackers involved in the offense.
“We have a lot of things to improve, but we’re showing a lot of progress in all areas,” Martin said. “We’re spending a lot of time to be sure that everyone knows their role and contributes to our success. Our big goal is to play a little cleaner game and maintain our intensity throughout an entire match.”
Ultimate-ly great: A team from the Windy City suburbs, Ultimate 17 Gold, found itself hoisting gold in Chicago as well. Ultimate finished 9-0 in 17 Open, downing MVVC 17 Red out of California for the crown.
“What really helped the team do well was how well these guys work together as a team,” Ultimate boys club director Joe Hovanes said. “Many of the guys on our team have played together at Ultimate since they were 13 and 14 years old. They kept their composure no matter what the score was. They stuck to their game plan and never got rattled.”
Hovanes noted Ultimate was especially on top of its ball-control game in the title tilt. “They took care of the ball,” he said. “Their ball control was just fantastic.”
Outside hitter Marty Jepsen, middle Wil McPhillups and setter David Flores were cited for strong play in Chicago.
“Marty always leads by example,” said Hovanes. “He is above average at every skill on the court. Wil brings speed, physical play and swagger to the team and David always is calm, cool and collected and seems to make the best choice.”
Hovanes said the team hasn’t been afraid to roll up its sleeves under the direction of coaches Troy Vidovic and Josh Scaletta. “The boys have played great all year,” said Hovanes. “They work as hard as they can and are pushing themselves to learn and improve as much as possible. Their coaches have said all year that anything we throw at them they soak up like a sponge and incorporate right away. They focus on getting better every day by becoming more physical, pushing the tempo of the offense and incorporating the back row. They are working hard to make a run at a gold medal.”
But what impressed Hovanes the most is how the 17s team “epitomizes what Ultimate is all about.”
“The boys at Ultimate all play hard and know that everyone supports each other from player to player to coach,” he said. “We all are pulling for each other. We had so many of our other players, coaches and parents watching when 17 Gold was in the championship match instead of leaving and going home at the end of their own play. It’s great to see and be a part of.”
What a difference a week makes: While MVVC 17 Red lost to Ultimate in the Chicago 17 Open final, coach Will Yuen saw major progress from just a week earlier when his squad won a local regional qualifier. He attributes the local action MVVC has seen thus far for helping in the Chicago bid tournament.
“We faced all our local teams plus a very talented Kui’ Kahi’ team from Hawaii,” he explained. “It was an odd format with a pool of eight and we played everyone over two days. First and second were re-matched in a final that had zero bid implications.”
Highlights included MVVC battling back from a first-set loss to Kui’ Kahi’ to win in three and then opened the second day against strong rival Bay 2 Bay where it won two to win the pool and again to win the tournament.
“Very consistent play by our guys,” said Yuen.
That led up to another strong performance in Chicago. “That experience continued the most to our success in Chicago,” said Yuen. “Our season of adversity against our region’s 18s teams combined with our experience of big-tournament success last season as well as the previous weekend’s regional qualifier provided the right formula for Chicago. Our team’s desire to compete was impressive throughout the weekend.
“It’s not uncommon for a team to play in a big championship match the week before and then find it difficult to start all over again less than a week later. The competition you face on a typical Day 1 is drastically different than your day 3-4 championship bracket. The boys’ desire to play was consistent throughout.”
Kevin Mathew has been one of many bright spots for MVVC, contributing in multiple areas of the game, Yuen noted.
“He’s our second-strongest server, second in blocking, second in attacking percentage and our starting setter. He’s a jack of all trades, master of one?”
Jeffrey Kwan, a libero, and Rajas Habu have been stellar as well.
“Jeffrey is consistently solid in serve-receive. He has a great read on hitters and makes all the right digs. Rajas is getting great reads on his blocks regardless of being on the left or right. He also is attacking aggressively for us,” said Yuen.
Yuen noted the team has had to fill-in/replace numerous roles from last year’s team due to injuries throughout the season. “I would say consistency is our greatest concern,” he said. “But our biggest strength is our versatility. We have multiple guys who can play multiple positions.”
More local success: Another Chicago-area team that did quite well for itself in Chicago was the Hitmen 16 Elite squad out of the Chicago western suburbs. Hitmen took second in 16 Open, losing to 949 16 Black in the finale. Hitmen finished 8-1 in the field, while 949 went unscathed at 9-0.
The Hitmen were powered by outside hitter Ben Harrington, middle Bryce Walker and setter Andrew Gawrisch.
“Ben has a very strong arm and is able to hit all areas of the court,” Hitmen club director Mike Liedtke said. “He’s one of the captains and has an excellent all-around game regardless of where he is on the court.
“Bryce has a quick, strong block that is able to beat almost anyone his age at the net with a heavy hit. Andrew leads the offense and is another of the captains. He leads by example and ensures everyone is doing their part on the team.”
Liedtke said teamwork was the deciding factor for the team. “We played well because of our ability to play as one unit—trusting each other to perform their role no matter what it is to benefit the team,” he said.
Hitmen 16 Elite was coming off a trip to San Diego the week before where it finished tied for fifth at the SCVA Junior Boys’ Invitational, another junior nationals bid tournament. “What impressed me the most throughout the tournament (in Chicago) was their ability to win matches even when we weren’t playing at our best,” said Liedtke. “Good teams find ways to battle through and win and we found a way to battle even though they were tired from a tough tournament in California less than a week before.”
Hitmen ran into a strong serving 949 team in the finale. “While we lost the last match of the day, our serve-receive was very good and kept us in the game by allowing us to continue to run our fast offense even against a tough-serving 949 team,” said Liedtke.
When Hitmen is in its offense and multiple players are contributing, Liedtke said it is tough to beat. “Like any 16s team, consistency is key,” he said. “When we are playing at the top of our game there isn’t a team we’ve played that can beat us. Our strength is running a fast-paced offense that has everyone involved in the play at all times and also a defense committed to not allowing any ball to hit the floor.”
Hitmen has its sights set on the upcoming St. Louis bid tournament. “We are continually working to improve all areas of the game to get even stronger and faster,” said Liedtke. “Our goal is to win the next national qualifier in St. Louis and then continue the momentum and win nationals come July.”
About TallSlim Tees
TallSlim Tees was founded in 2014 to provide shirts for the lean and tall, not the big and tall. Today they have a variety of apparel, including tees, polos, hoodies and tank tops. They are an ideal fit for many volleyball players. TallSlim Tees is the official t-shirt sponsor of Billy Allen and Ryan Doherty of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour. Shop now at www.tallslimtees.com and use coupon code VOLLEYBALL at checkout for 10% off your order!