Presented by TallSlim Tees
For the Milwaukee Sting 18 Gold team, it was all about resiliency at the recent Northern Lights 18s qualifier held in Omaha, Nebraska.
Sting shook off losses to A4 18 Purple and MN Select 18-1 to capture the tournament title. After losing to Select, Sting ran off four victories, including wins over the two teams it had previously lost to in the tournament.
Sting and MN Select both qualified for USA Volleyball junior nationals.
“What impressed me most with this group is the re-group after the first day,” Sting coach Scott Blackmon said. “I felt day 1 was good, but it certainly wasn’t our best foot. We played well enough but not great ball and in our second set against A4, it was downright abysmal. We couldn’t anything right and A4 was doing everything to keep us from doing it right. They defended the backcourt well, they defended the net well, their setter was setting everyone at will and we did next to nothing to stop it. That rattled the cage of our kids a little bit.”
In their post-tournament meeting, Blackmon noted the team made the decision to get “a bit more serious about what we were doing and concentrate more on the little things,” he said.
One key nugget that emerged from that meeting was communication.
“One of the kids commented that the talk on the court was more and more positive, whether it was toward a teammate or introspective of an error made,” Blackmon said. “Five of these kids were with me on this team last season and one has been with me since she was 16. Those kids grew up a lot between the seasons.
“Last year we would take the proverbial two steps forward and three steps back all season. It felt, at times, like we weren’t ever going to mature into an 18s team. I’m really happy with the players and leaders they have become over the last season and some months. The new kids we added to the team (two from 17 Gold last year and two new to the club) also have been tremendous additions to both the play and character/culture of our team.”
Blackmon said it ended up being a good thing Sting was matched up again with A4 and MN Select on the final day.
“Those losses fueled a little fire and were great scouting reports for the final day,” he said. “Our kids really had a point to make in our last match with A4. They were embarrassed on Day 1 and had a chip on their collective shoulder. They did a much better job following the game plan, fighting through tough spots and staying within themselves.”
Libero Katie Schoessow was a key cog on the final day for Sting.
“Katie absolutely had the best day of the season so far and possibly since I’ve been coaching her,” said Blackmon, who noted Schoessow is one of five players back from last year’s team. “It was in large part because she’s good at her job, but also because our block made our back-court players’ lives much easier.”
Blackmon calls middle blocker Karli Graham the team’s unsung hero.
“The kid has been so steady with what she has been doing,” he said. “She isn’t leading in any stats, but she’s No. 2 in blocks for us, hitting efficiency and aces. The best part, though, is her defense. I’ve had a lot of middles over the years where we change our blocking scheme just so they don’t have to take any hard-driven balls. I don’t worry about that with Karli. The kid is making digs on day 3 that had Katie screaming for her from the sideline. They were perfect digs. It’s great to watch and makes me really proud to be her coach.”
Brooke Andersen also delivered the goods for Sting in Omaha.
“Brooke was a workhouse,” said Blackmon. “She was passing extremely well, was attacking smart and serving well. The kids has a lot of all-around game.”
Andersen also was playing in front of a home crowd of sorts.
“Her dad was born in Omaha and mom is from Iowa so she had a lot of family show up on day 2,” said Blackmon. “She performed great for them and continued to do so through the last day. She may eventually run out of steam over the course of a big event, but she still puts everything she has into every play. I can’t ask for anything more.”
Blackmon also applauded the play of setters Claire Mosher and Miranda Wucherer for their play on the right side.
“We may have the two smallest right sides in the country in 18 Open, but those two can ball when it comes right down to it,” he said. “They work hard, they are extremely smakrt, they take advantage of what is given to them for the most part by the defense. When it comes to attacking, I think teams don’t take either of them very seriously and that works for us. They had a great final day.
“The tempo to our outsides was on point and the decision-making process was pretty good, and serving was very good. Miranda ripped off three jumpers in a row that led to three overpass kills to open things up against Select in the second set (day 3).”
Outside hitter Mikaylah Van Lanen and middle Rachel Murphy are new to the club this season.
“I’m excited for our two newbies,” said Blackmon. “Mikaylah has been a great addition to our outside stable and Rachel has impressed me in the middle.”
Mia Grunze came up big for Sting in the rematch with Select. Blackmon pulled Mosher out of the front row in Sting’s 6-2 setup and put Grunze on the right.
“Mia had a great weekend,” said Blackmon. “With all three of our outsides in, we had no room for subs if any of them struggled. There were times it was the Mia show.”
More new faces: Another team dealing with a host of new players this season is A4 18 Purple, which won its first six matches in Omaha before losing to Select and Sting in between defeating COAST 18-1 for the second time.
“As a team, we competed well taking into account we have six new players to the team playing significant roles,” said A4 coach Joaquin Acosta. “As a group, we’ve only had about six weeks together and this is the first tournament we competed against high-level competition from one match to the next. I thought the team did well given where we are in the season.”
A4 is led by standouts Devon Chang and Rachel Ahrens, whom Acosta called two of the “top players in the country.”
“Rachel was an offensive force throughout the tournament, which was not a surprise. She really stepped up as one of our primary passers. She is such a great terminal hitter and has a lot of different ways to score. Devon did a great job getting hitters involved and made it very difficult for opposing left-side hitters with her presence at the net. Devon basically willed our team to a victory against Coast on day 2.”
Acosta calls Chang, “by far, the best blocking setter in the country.”
“She is an intimidating force at the net,” he added.
A key addition to the team has been middle blocker Sage Naves.
“Sage is a very physical middle that affects the game both offensively and defensively,” said Acosta. “Devon and her still are working on connecting consistently, but I thought that we got better throughout the tournament.”
Acosta felt right side Kayla Rivera has a breakout performance in Omaha.
“She emerged huge against Coast on day 3 where it took a 31-29 game two score to send it to three and stay alive,” he said. “This is her first experience playing against really high-level opponents. It’s exciting she demonstrated that much growth over three days.”
While A4 did not earn a nationals bid (finishing in third), Acosta is encouraged where the season is headed.
“We were disappointed we were unable to come back from Omaha without the bid,” he said. “We lost to two teams that are very disciplined and compete very well (MN Select and Milwaukee Sting).
“I think we have a chance to be very good. Some of the potential ball-control questions I had coming in were answered because some of our players stepped up big. We can do a much better job from the service line and can get better offensively with our middles. We have a physical team and can present a balanced attack. We will continue to work hard at having multiple threats from all rotations.
“Our goal as a team is to be in the mix again of teams competing for a title once nationals come around. I do think we have the pieces, but we have a lot of work in front of us.”