Having lost to TAV in the USA Volleyball national-championship 17 Open semifinals last summer in Indianapolis, Coast 18-1 took its first official step in hopes of this age group reaching the podium for the third consecutive season.
Coast — which features nine players who earned a silver medal together in 16 Open in 2018 and another three who joined last season for the run in 17s — is no stranger to contending and obviously would love nothing more than to claim the gold medal that has eluded it so far.
The SoCal club punched its ticket to the 18 Open championships in Reno by winning the Mizuno Northern Lights Qualifier this past weekend in Minneapolis. Coast went 8-1, with its only loss to Milwaukee Sting 18 Gold to end the second day. By then, Coast was already guaranteed a spot in the four-team gold pool set for day three.
By the time Coast and HJV 18 Elite met to close that pool out, both had wrapped up bids and were left squaring off for first place. Before Coast topped Houston Juniors in three, 21-25, 25-18, 15-12, however, it was Apex1 18-Black securing the club’s first-ever Open bid by downing FRVBC 18 Black 25-20, 25-22. Also out of the SCVA region, Apex qualified for Nationals a summer ago, finishing tied for fifth and one spot away from a medal in that division. In wanting to break through to Open in 2020, Apex retooled its roster by adding five players to an existing roster that featured setter Mia Tuaniga, who is going to Long Beach State. One such addition was S/OH Malialani Tufuga, who is headed to Stanford.
With the upgraded roster, Apex was all-in on qualifying for Open this season. The club also signed up for the Boston and Las Vegas qualifiers. Instead of still trying to earn a bid at those events, Apex may be positioned to help create trickle down for clubs still in need.
“This year, playing and trying to qualify in Open wasn’t a question,” Apex club director Tinei Tuaniga said. “With the returning players plus the ones we added it was no question we were going Open. Every qualifier we signed up for is in Open.
“The girls were ready. They wanted it so much. They worked hard leading up to the weekend.”
Apex, which went 5-4 over the three days, lost twice to Coast. The sides are set to meet yet again this Sunday during SCVA Mandatory 1 action. Additionally, next week Apex will be among the highlight teams in 18 Open Elite of the SCVA Las Vegas Classic. That field also contains Mizuno Long Beach 18 Rockstar, AZ Rev 18 Adidas and San Gabriel Elite 18 Rosh. The rest are expected to qualify in Open at some point and join Apex later this year in Reno. Until then, it’s pretty clear what Apex is going to be focusing on.
“The coaches’ game plan is for the team to get better everywhere,” Tinei Tuaniga said. “We are working on getting them better. They need to be ready for the coaches to work them harder.”
Coast, meanwhile, picked up its first tournament victory of the season and aims for another next weekend in Kansas City, site of the Triple Crown Sports NIT.
Coast finished in third place in 17 Elite last year at the event. This year, the team will show up with a bid already secured after its performance in Minnesota. Coast opened the final day of competition by sweeping FRVBC then downed both Apex and HJV in three to finish on top. It’s early and even with the success of the group out of the gate, Coast coach Ozhan Bahrambeygui knows there’s still a ways to go.
“I don’t know how good some of the other teams are,” said Ozhan. “TAV has an all-star cast. Mintonette is super organized from what I hear.”
Coast faces Mintonette on the first day of Triple Crown and could see TAV later on. In either case, the SoCal squad hopes the play of China Rai Crouch continues on the right side. Ozhan pointed to her as having a breakout weekend, delivering eight blocks in the last match against HJV and hitting .780 in a sweep against FRVBC in the first match Sunday.
She’s one of the returning players, but three new additions also highlighted more depth, Ozhan said. The team brought aboard junior setter Molly Wilson and L/DS Alex Lougeay, as well as Sophia Callahan on the right side. It goes with a lineup that already include weapons like Maddie Endsley, Layla Blackwell and Lindsey Miller.
“I think we’ll be pretty good,” Ozhan said. “Right now, everyone is a race to retool their systems at 18s.”
Houston Juniors can attest to that.
Kara Pratt took over as the 18s coach this season and from the get-go wanted to bring a different feel to the oldest age group after coaching 15s in recent years. Like many 18s, it can be challenging to have players fully engaged with so many other things happening and college so near.
Pratt said her team struggled at the Pre-Qualified Teams event on the Tour of Texas last month, which included a loss to CC Force 181 Crossfire as well as to Skyline 18 Royal and TAV. However, HJV hit its stride in Minneapolis. The club reeled off five straight wins before finishing the second day with a loss to Arizona Storm Elite 18 Thunder. HJV already had the pool clinched though and finished in first place anyway. Victories over Apex and FRVBC, both in three, gave HJV its bid before finishing out with a loss to Coast.
“We were super competitive with Coast,” Pratt said. “We had a shot at them.”
The roster isn’t as big as Coast’s — both in numbers and size. Coast carries 15 players while HJV has 10. Pratt credited a new focus after struggling at the Tour for the team’s effort over the weekend.
“It was amazing,” she said. “This is literally the first time I’ve had a group of kids who played consistently with energy, with momentum and never quitting the entire weekend. There were times we were down 7-8 points and came back and won because we were playing so hard.”
Another Pratt said stands out to her is what she calls a selflessness to this bunch. One example she gave was junior outside Ally Batenhorst, a Nebraska commit.
“She’ll tell you she gets more excited when someone else makes an exciting play than when she makes one,” Pratt said.
Aiding in helping the team qualify for Reno was the play of Sahara Maruska. She helped show the versatility HJV can throw at opponents. HJV typically runs a 6-2, subbing setters for middles, but asked Maruska to play on the left at times over the weekend and she delivered.
“We hadn’t put her on the left and we tried it with Ally on the right with a 5-1,” Pratt said. “Sahara had some crazy blocks. Her energy is contagious.”
Last season, it was Legacy 18-Elite winning everything. So far, Legacy has watched another team get off to a flying start. Two weeks after Mintonette Sports m.81 captured the Music City Qualifier in Nashville, the team stayed home and picked up another first-place showing by finishing on top of the Ohio Valley Qualifier in Columbus. Legacy, which qualified by taking third in Nashville, took second. Both were already qualified, creating trickle down to fifth place. Taking advantage were PNK 18s, Top Select 18 Elite Blue and Metro 18 Travel, which had to earn its bid in a winner-take-all conclusion to its Sunday.
Mintonette not only collected its second qualifier trophy, it did so without losing once again. That sets the Ohio club up nicely heading into next weekend’s Triple Crown NIT. As we highlighted after Mintonette qualified in Nashville, the team is the same and remains dialed in after its most recent outing. Mintonette had an interesting start to the weekend, having to play Metro in the opening contest. It’s unusual two qualified teams play each other on day in a field like the one in Ohio. Mintonette went on from there, eventually defeating Impact VBC Smack 18 Jay and Top Select 18 Elite Blue to reach the final. There, Mintonette took care of Legacy in three 25-6, 20-25, 15-13.
Legacy was on the cusp of medaling in 17 Open in Indianapolis last summer and the fact that the Michigan club has double-qualified only further adds to the notion Legacy will be in contention in Reno too. The only other setback besides falling to Mintonette in the final was losing to another Ohio club in Elevation on Day 2. On that day, Legacy also defeated previously-qualified Circle City 18 Purple and Top Select, which went onto qualify.
As for Top Select, Blake Rawlins’ squad tied for third with PNK. The clubs did not play it out as both were already guaranteed a bid. Both teams have different make-ups after making it to Open last year in as 17s teams. Of the two, Top Select underwent a bigger transformation, losing its starting outsides, a middle, a setter and a libero.
“We have three returners plus Mallory Downing, who has played for me before,” Rawlins said. “We have 10 new kids and of them five have never played for our club before. They’re learning the system.”
Among the returners looking to mesh with the newcomers are setters Emily Lawrence and middle Imani Hartfield. Joining the team is outside AC Fitzpatrick, an outside signed with Penn State. They experience a rough start in Nashville, going 4-4 and missing out playing for a bid on the final day.
The results were more positive in Columbus. Top Select downed PNK 25-23, 21-25, 15-9 to end day one. The victory was part of five in a row for Top Select, which lost to Legacy to end the second day. Day three opened with Top Select sweeping Impact 25-23, 25-15 before falling to Mintonette. By virtue of Mintonette beating Impact, Top Select had its bid.
“We turned it around,” Rawlins said. “We had a good weekend. We wanted to be in the final but we did what we needed to do to get the bid. We can relax now and focus on growing as a team.”
Metro was left in the undesirable position of having to win its last match to get the lone remaining bid. Both PNK and Legacy beat Metro in pool play, leaving Metro squaring off with Impact in the fifth-place showdown. Seeing Metro in Open has been the norm, but Impact would have been a surprise qualifier had it taken third. Instead, Metro rolled to victory in straight sets 25-18, 25-11.
Top Select and Metro were teams that were expecting to make Open in 2020. PNK Volleyball of Louisville, on the other hand, wasn’t sure if it would be able to capitalize on last season’s Open success given the roster changes. One switch was not having Eleanor Beavin to play libero this season. That led to last season’s setter Elena Scott taking on that role this spring while Brianna Postema is the quarterback.
“It’s a big transition,” PNK coach Connie Hulsmeyer said. “Elena is doing great and continues to work hard and learn the position. Bri is a big setter for us. She gives us a lot more height. Kaylee Lowe we moved from the right side to the left and she’s become our go-to hitter.”
Even if PNK managed to make Open this year, Hulsmeyer said she could have never have guessed it would have come this early. But true to form, PNK did not make it easy. Day 1 was a close escape after finishing in three-way tie with VC United 181 Elite and Rogue 18 at 1-2. With the new tiebreaker rules this season, PNK didn’t need to play a set to 25 to help break the tie. PNK had the best set percentage, taking second and advancing to stay alive.
Mintonette handed PNK a loss to kickoff the second day before PNK found its rhythm and won three straight. The victory over Metro was key, as it put PNK into the third-place match with Top Select.
“I wasn’t thinking we would be in this position, especially this early,” Hulsmeyer said. “I’m pleasantly surprised. We played way better than we anticipated. We have a lot of potential. It’s not to feel any pressure at the next couple of qualifiers.”