VolleyballMag.com’s February “Hunch” club national rankings: The 18s

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FC Elite

Having ranked club teams nationally for more than 20 years, by the last week in February I typically have a terrific sense of which 18s teams are elite and which are trying to get to that status.

This year, however, is anything but typical, both for the teams being ranked and also for the ranker.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the teams may have had to deal with tournament postponements, competing high school seasons, contact tracing and quarantining over the first several months of 2021. I can look at results, but do they tell me ANYTHING about how good a team has been or can be?

As for me, well, the knowledge base isn’t exactly up to snuff currently. There was only a truncated season a year ago and I didn’t get to see any teams. With my departure from PrepVolleyball.com in April, I didn’t follow volleyball closely for several months. And, now that I’m at VolleyballMag.com, trying to rebuild my contact lists and get clubs to complete forms for me is taking longer than I’d hoped …

… which is why I call these “hunch” rankings, because that’s exactly what they are: my best guess about the top 25 teams in the nation.

That’s right. I wrote 25. Though I’d be ranking 75 by now in a typical year, I just don’t feel comfortable beyond a top 25. Quite simply, I don’t like to guess. As I gain more knowledge, I will expand the rankings in subsequent iterations.

To prepare these rankings, I examined major results from across the nation, reviewed the forms that have been submitted and received feedback, on the initial list I developed, from a dozen top 18s coaches (thanks!!!). The rankings below are the product of that research.

Please enjoy them for what they are but do not be afraid to post comments below with appropriate criticism (praise also is accepted). I would love to interact with you about what you think and what you know! It makes me better.

And now, without further ado…

February 18s Hunch National Rankings
1. Texas Advantage 18 Black (Texas) — TAV has been the team to beat in this age group since 15s. Joe Jablonski’s team is off to a hot start despite the absence of standout middle Tyrah Airial (knee). The team, which has dropped only one set all year, is led by defenders Callie Kemohah and Kalani Whillock. Jordyn Williams is a dynamic middle and the squad has two extraordinary and athletic, six-rotation outsides in Charitie Luper and Natalie Glenn. Setters Brooke Slusser and Ashley Le and pins Lyric Stewart and Bailey Birmingham all are capable of star turns on a team that knows how to win and expects it.

2. Munciana Samurai (Indiana) — Muncie has been demolishing teams to start the season, leaving many coaches from outside Indiana to speculate that Mike Lingenfelter may have his best team yet. Lingenfelter is playing down the hype, saying only that “We could be a solid team.” The team is great on the pins with Mabrey Shaffmaster and Eva Hudson and even better in the back court, where Elle Stinson, Carly Mills and Bailey Cox patrol. Setter Camryn Haworth and MB Laila Smith are two others to watch for Samurai, which has started the year 33-0.

A5 18-Scott

3. A5 18-Scott (Georgia) — A5 was well on its way to adding a high Beast of the Southeast finish to its second-place showing at the Florida National 18 Qualifier before COVID hit midway through this past weekend. This is a formidable team folks, one that will have a lot of good days. Ten return from last year’s team that won Triple Crown with three terrific newcomers. The key names, by now, should all be familiar to club volleyball fans: setter Kalissa Greene, MBs Ngozi Iloh and Jacque Boney, defender Emery Dupes, outsides Mary Emily Morgan, Evoni Lemons and Bella Tolone. Scott Shelley knows he has a special group. If they improve, as expected, they should be in the hunt for the big trophies at the end of the season.

4. Sports Performance 18 Elite (Illinois) — There is talk around Aurora that this SPVB squad could be one of the great ones to come through the club. The key players are setter Zayna Meyer and terminal outsides Emily Wilson and Ella Wrobel. Libero Morgan Rank and middle Ellie Watson are two others to watch. The core group of this team was 39-3 last year before COVID struck and has started well in 2021. Seth Salmon’s team hasn’t been tested though. Bluegrass in a couple of weeks should be indicative of how good 18 Elite can be.

5. Houston Skyline 18 Royal (Texas) — Houston Skyline is tall, talented and experienced. When healthy, the team can compete at the highest levels. The strength is on the pins, where head coach Cydrice McMillian has a stable of Division I attackers to play, headlined by 6-4 RS Allie Sczech (Baylor), 6-1 OH Ellie Echter (LSU), 6-3 OH Bria Woodard (Howard), 6-1 OH Lyla Traylor (Cal State Fullerton) and 6-2 OH Sophia Keene (Baylor). Others to watch include middles Cimone Woodard and Sania Petties, defenders Gaby Mansfield and Annalie Heliste and physical setter Mekaila Aupiu.

6. Coast 18-1 (California) — This is a team that can compete for a medal in 2021. Ozhan Bahrambeygui’s team didn’t show it at the Dallas qualifier, due to losing both of its setters on Day 1, but there is talent flowing through the entire 10-player roster. The team is led by do-everything RS Mckenna Branson, top attacker Sophia Callahan and setter Rocky Aguirre. Sami Francis, an immense presence at 6-6; 6-3 middle Colby Neal, setter Molly Wilson and junior Gala Trubint are others who will make deep impacts before the season is done.

7. Tstreet 18-Kasia (California) — Eleven players return for head coach Kasia Ligwinska to a team that is a perennial contender in this age group and won the first meeting of the Premier Volleyball League. Setter Rachel Fairbanks, libero Lauren Bays and outside hitters Jessica Smith and Elysse Stowell, middles Katelyn Smith and Brianne Albright and RS Grace Chillingworth are among the players to watch on this star-studded team.

8. MAVS KC 18-1 (Kansas) — Beau Barnthson has an intriguing team. Setter Kendra Wait and OH/libero Caroline Bien, who played up on those great MAVS teams that competed every year for national titles, anchor this squad. Both are sensational. The team adds high flyer Kristin Birmingham from KC Power and the amazing defender Courtney Jackson, along with Leilani Elder, from Dynasty. Add five who played on MAVS 17-1 last year and you have a national championship contender, something this team has already proven by winning the Northern Lights Qualifier.

9. Premier Nebraska 18 Gold (Nebraska) — Nine out of 10 return from last year’s team, which took seventh at Triple Crown before the season got shut down. Shannon Smolinski’s squad features tremendous setter Phyona Schrader (Notre Dame), an Iowa HS state champ who drives 2.5 hours for practice. She also is hitting this year, which adds to an impressive offense that features two of the best attackers in the nation in Lindsay Krause and Norah Sis. Libero Bre Skala also is an impact player to watch for Premier, which qualified at Northern Lights.

AZ Storm Elite 18 Thunder

10. AZ Storm Elite 18 Thunder (Arizona) — Storm won the Florida qualifier recently and is 15-1 according to AES. This team is deep on the pins, led by high-flying outside Aliyah Moore (stands 5-8; touches 10-6!) and HS state champions Jahara Campbell and McKenzie Wise. Jamie Rolfes’ squad has a standout in the middle in Reagan Hope (another, Alyssa Uhlenhop, is rehabbing a shoulder injury) and a terrific setter in Jenna Heller, who comes over from Club ONE AZ. New libero Sarah Martin has been stellar in the early going.

FC Elite

11. FC Elite 18 Elite (Wisconsin) — The core group of this team played 18s last year with only two seniors on the roster and started to jell right before the shutdown. All eight of the eligible returnees are back, including setter Brooke Mosher, libero Saige Damrow, MB Hattie Bray and OH Cora Behnke. The team has added two impact youngsters, 6-1 outside Ella Demetrician, considered the top freshman in the state; and 6-6 sophomore RS Kennedy Martin, who is rehabbing a broken foot/ankle and will return soon.  FC Elite isn’t a name you usually see in a top 10, but this team is legit. They have four losses all year and all went three sets. Watch out for this group.

12. Union 18-UA (Kentucky) — Defense is the name of the game for this Union team, which features three players who could be collegiate All-America liberos one day. On this team, however, they will play outside hitter, setter and libero, respectively. OH Ali Hornung, who played 18s a year ago; and two from PNK, setter Elena Scott and libero Eleanor Beavin; will be the pulse of Craig Bossmeyer’s team. Others to watch include OH Anna Purichia, MB Allison Holloway, setter Emma Kaelin and MB Lagia Williams. This team may lack traditional 18s size but it has already proved its mettle by winning Central Zones.

13. Adversity 18 Adidas (Illinois) — As 17s, Adversity placed 11th at Triple Crown. Three who played for the 18s last year will join this group and make them that much stronger. Marco Quintana’s squad boasts two tremendous setters, 6-1 Rachel Muisenga (Penn State) and 5-8 Ava Tortorello (Arizona). Others to watch include libero Caroline Barnes, middle Gigi Barr and RS Amanda Rice.

14. Mizuno Northern Lights 18-1 (Minnesota)
Last year as 17s, Lights won its own qualifier, making it the first team to win a 17s qualifier (TAV was the other) before the COVID shutdown. Nine return from last year’s team, including 6-4 RS Lauren Crowl, who can terminate with the best of them. The three left sides, Erin Lamb, Kira Fallert and Madelyn Hornyak, are all very good and can terminate front row and back. Libero Emma Torstenson also is a terrific talent. Lights is off to a good start, with a win at the President’s Day tournament in Omaha. They will be without setter Kennedi Orr (knee), the best senior in the country, and are running a 5-2 without her.

Wave 18 Kevin

15. WAVE 18 Kevin (California) — WAVE is a small but mighty team made up of fighters and overachievers. They have huge heart and never give up! The team recently won the PVL President’s Day Tournament without dropping a set! Players to watch include middles Haylee Stoner and Audrey Sawyer, outside Brianna Young and RS Anna Aubele. This team has qualified Open every year since 14s. This year should be no different.

16. Colorado Juniors 18Kevin (Colorado) — I’m hearing that Kevin Marquis’ team has not been healthy early in the season. When healthy, this is a formidable bunch, led by tremendous middles Carter Booth and Rylie Kadel. Setter Payton Dunn and pins Maddie Kinney and Anjelina Starck give this team firepower. Gabi Brown steps in to the libero position in place of Sam Anthony, who is at Oklahoma.

17. Milwaukee Sting 18 Gold (Wisconsin) — Scott Blackmon’s Sting team is off to a fast start in 2021, with top three finishes in three major events. We haven’t heard from Sting yet, but know that Sam Naber is a cornerstone at libero and the outsides, Mckenna Wucherer, the lone underclassmen on the 11-player squad; and Mariah Grunze, are very potent. Setters Emme Bullis and Janelle Stuempfig are players to watch, as is middle Lakyn Graves, who had an outstanding HS campaign.

18. Michigan Elite 18 Mizuno (Michigan) — Small but fast, MEVBA has one of the best setters in the country, Julia Bishop, running a fast offense and a defensive group, anchored by Rachel Jennings, that is the envy of most. Vince Muscat’s team returned everyone from last year’s squad that was the top 17s at the Mideast Power League. The team already has qualified Open and has two terminal right sides in Jenna Vaske and Ellie Tisko.

Elevation 18 Goller

19. Elevation 18 Goller (Ohio) — Elevation qualified in Open at Ohio Valley despite sometimes having only six healthy bodies. Adam Goller’s team returns a core group that was competitive as 17s a year ago but with major upgrades. Setter Megan Wielonski, who led Mount Notre Dame to an Ohio Division I state title, highlights the returning group, which also includes Annie Lockett and Jules Fink. OH Carly Hendrickson, a hard-hitting Florida recruit; and talented libero Andrea Grimes come over from NKYVC and make the team infinitely better. Hailey Green, a 6-3 MB committed to Denver, who played 18s a year ago, also is a big-time talent.

20. Mintonette m. 81 (Ohio) — Ten players return from last year’s team, which qualified in 17 Open at Sunshine right before COVID ended things. The squad is led by libero Sydney Taylor, setter Logan Flaugh and the dynamic pin hitting of London Davis and Olyvia Kennedy. Newcomer Tazmin Appiah is fast and dynamic and will give the team a new look in the middle. Mintonette has already qualified in Open after winning the Boys Winter Championships in Chicago in January.

21. Tri-State Elite 18 Blue (Ohio) — The addition of Kentucky recruit Emma Grone at the setting position shores up a position that was in flux when Maggie Jones left early for NC State. Grome is amazing and will make Matt Long’s hitting lineup of Caroline Clippard, Julia Marr, Emma Grace, Madison Merz and Sammie Engel that much stronger. The team currently ranks second only behind Munciana Samurai in the Mideast Power League.

22. OTVA 18 O Felix (Florida) — OT survived four three-set matches to go 9-0 and take the Beast of Southeast tournament this past weekend. We know this team, which is led by setter Alanys Viera, outsides Jeila Fullerton and Valeria Rosado and libero Jordan Hardy, to be relentless and super scrappy. The team is vastly improved in the middle, as dynamic Keodreya Granberry joins Ranya Mehta to make this a strength position as well.

23. FaR Out 18 Black (Michigan) — There are Big Ten signees galore on Joe Steenhuysen’s team, the core group of which completed at the 18s level a year ago. The team is led by pins Jenna Reitsma, Maradith O’Gorman, Evie Doezema, Taylor Humphrey and Anna Smith. Aubrey O’Gorman is a force to contend with in the middle. Setting inexperience and COVID quarantine has prevented this squad from hitting its stride early in the season, but this is a group that will command respect as the season goes on.
 
24. San Antonio Juniors 18 Adidas (Texas) — The core group of this team played as SA Magic the past few years, before coach Albert Trevino started this new club for the 2021 season. We are still waiting to hear from the club, but know this team qualified Open at the AVC Qualifier in Dallas. Among the players to watch are middles Faye Wilbright and Elise McGhee and outside hitter Bryshanna Brown.

25. Dallas Skyline 18 Purple (Texas) — We haven’t heard from Skyline yet, but know that junior Averi Carlson is setting this team. That’s enough for us to rank them in the top 25. MBs Shaylee Shore and Taylor Youtsey, OH Candace Collier and libero Lindsey Zhang are others we expect to be impact players on this squad.

Other teams to watch (in alphabetical order):
1st Alliance 18 Silver (Illinois)
Circle City 18 Purple (Indiana)
East Coast Power 18 Royal (Pennsylvania)
East Valley Juniors 18N-1 Tempe
(Arizona)
Metro 18 Travel
(Washington D.C.)
Rockwood Thunder 18 Elite (Missouri)
The Academy 18E Rage
(Indiana)
VC Nebraska 18 Elite
(Nebraska)
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