Junior boys: Women’s standouts having success as boys coaches

Long Island VBC 16s finished fifth at the Boys Invitational in Southern California

In this week’s boys juniors update presented by TallSlim Tees, we lead off with a pair of teams being coached by former women’s indoor standouts.

Former USC great Nicole Davis coaches Team Rockstar of Carson, Calif., while University of Texas product Sydney Yogi is at the controls of the Excel 16 Red team from Dallas-area Carrollton, Texas.

Davis’ Rockstar 17s squad traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., and left with a sense of key progress, finishing second at the Florida Fest boys’ bid tournament in 17 Open, with its only loss coming to Open champion Orlando Gold (more on them below).

“Our team learned some hard lessons at the SoCal qualifier prior to the Florida tournament,” said Davis, who had a long and successful run as the U.S. women’s national team’s libero and also played professionally overseas. “It is really valuable to play high-level teams that put pressure on our guys so that we can learn to be comfortable when things are uncomfortable. We still are learning how to do that, but we made huge strides after SoCal that led to some of our success in Florida.”

Davis noted her team progressed in the serve-and-pass game and executed its block and defensive strategies much better in Florida.

“Keeping the ball and putting pressure on the other team to make plays has helped us be good more consistently,” she said. “Our middles were able to come up with some big-time blocks down the stretch that changed the momentum of a couple sets. We also saw lots of growth from some of the guys in utility roles and they were able to contribute coming off the bench or in any situation we put them in.”

Nicole Davis

Davis was pleased with how Teilon Tufuga, Gus Acord, Andre Lawrence, Akin Akinwumi and Jack Higgs have been playing of late.

“Teilon shows up and plays consistently at a high level for us,” Davis said. “He’s starting to embrace a leadership role, learning how to get the best out of those around him. He’s becoming more invested in the mental skills that lead to high performance. He’s been a rock for us.”

Acord and Lawrence have been leaders in the back row.

“We have two fantastic liberos who have done wonderful things for us, each in their own unique way,” said Davis. “That position is so import for the continuity of the team and the level of play. Gus and Andre have been so solid.”

Akinwumi and Higgs also drew praise.

“Akin has made huge strides in various aspects of the game and has the ability to take over at times. We believe he can do that more often,” she said. “Jack has been really solid for us as well. He’s just fun to watch and competes with a quiet confidence.”

Davis said Rockstar has been making the progress it needs in order to be ready for the summer part of the schedule.

“The team is a great group of guys,” she said. “They are impressive to me more for who they are then how they play. Physically, some of these guys certainly are capable of playing at the next level and potentially on the national team. As for the season, realistically the composition of the team was brand-new. We brought on several guys from other clubs and had to go through some growing pains, getting to know each other and developing the kind of culture we want and getting the guys to really start working as a unit.

“I have a big vision for each of these guys as volleyball players and human beings. We’ve fallen short a lot this season and they’ve all been wonderful learning moments for the players and our coaching staff as well. We also have seen glimpses of what is possible for the group, such as the run we had in Florida that lets us know we’re not too far off the mark from where we want to be going into the summer.”

Excel 16 Red: Yogi’s team took second  at the Southwest Boys Classic in Houston, where it earned an Open bid and took second in Silver at the Gateway Classic in St. Louis.

“In our region, the season requires a lot of travel and a big commitment,” said boys program director Alex Lepp said. “This team has 12 players who have grown together behind Sydney, who has balanced a large roster and held kids accountable. Her leadership has unleashed some of the most consistent play from Jett, an uber-talented setter and banger.

“The team really went to St. Louis to put forth a strong showing, but also left understanding there is a lot to learn. They are eager to keep getting better and that is a credit to Sydney’s approach.”

Lepp noted the trek up to St. Louis was the team’s first look at out-of-region competition.

“It was a huge eye-opener about the consistently high level of play and pace of the game. It was a great learning experience,” he said. “Our second-day pool matches all went three sets. That showed the guys they can hang with everyone but they need to dig to find the next level.”

In Houston, a balanced offense drove the team’s success, as did strong defensive play.

“We can play great defense and scramble well,” Lepp added.

Jett Stewart, Lepp explained, drive the team as a setter-right side thanks to a “lethal serve and a springy attack,” he said. “Jett also can be a shutdown blocker.”

Libero Cooper Herndon is the team’s emotional leader.

“He’s constantly active and a part of the play,” said Lepp. “He is in constant support and encouragement of his teammates.”

Reagan Kleinman is a 6-9 middle for Excel who still is coming back from an injury and getting his timing down.

“Reagan is progressing every day and can be a monster block and someone who is tough to stop offensively,” said Lepp.

Six-rotation outside Noah Tyehimba has been a steady leader for the team.

“Noah is never rattled and consistently delivers for the team,” Lepp added.

UNO 16s Elite took first at the Dennis Lafata Gateway Boys Festival

Numero Uno: The Uno 16 Elite team out of the Chicago area has fared well on the tournament circuit thus far. Uno went 8-1 at the Boys Winter Volleyball Championships in Chicago, but took ninth. It won the Southwest Boys Classic in Houston with a 7-0 mark and took second at Florida Fest with a 5-1 record. Uno made it two qualifier tournament titles with a first-place finish at the Dennis Lafata Gateway Boys Festival in St. Louis (8-1 record). Uno had a combined 28-3 record in those four events.

“Each qualifier contains its own anecdotes of difficulty and triumph, but the success we have found has come in a relatively straightforward manner,” coach David Bachtler said. “Primarily, we have gifted volleyball athletes, therefore we don’t have many glaring weaknesses or deficiencies by positions. That’s not to say there has been no improvement or there is no room to improve — far from it.

“The development we have realized has come from a couple key concepts that have taken time to foster, but many find difficult to grasp. I’ve been fortunate to have this group for two years now so these concepts have had a little more time to marinate than what may have otherwise been the case.”

Bachtler explained one of the concepts is maintaining a long-term vision for what a realistic final product should look like given the personnel the team has been afforded.

“In this vein, we have tried to keep things simple that should be kept simple,” he said. “There’s no value in complicating certain things for the sake of proving something from a coaching perspective. Additionally, a healthy understanding of the various risk/reward dynamics at play within certain areas of our game and how those dynamics may change through time also has been critical.”

The coach also cites player and parent buy-in to the program and the commitment it takes to make a difference as another key building block. “We’ve had an increasing level of confidence and mental fortitude that our players have recently exhibited and there is succinct communication and transparency surrounding expectations and what the path forward likely will include,” Bachtler said.

Bachtler also lauded the continued support he and the team receive from club director Terri Baranski and assistant coach Dan Johnson. Individually, setter Dan Mangun has been a key cog in the Uno machine thus far.

“Dan is a setter’s setter who can provide a quality ball to his hitters from virtually any location,” said Bachtler. “He also plays to his own strengths very effectively and understands his weaknesses for personal development’s sake. Additionally, he has the luxury of having a former Division I college setter as a sister, which allows him to draw form a deep visual-data bank in understanding the flow of the game.”

Opposite Trevor Lewis, as well as outsides KJ Glab and Max Toborg also have helped Bachtler’s squad to the success it has achieved. “Trevor has developed into an attacker who has increasingly been able to find success both in-system and in bail-out scenarios in both the front row and back court,” the coach said. “KJ is a freshman playing an age group up and he has provided us with a consistent weapon from the service line and has polished up his serve-receive.”

Toborg was moved to libero for a few matches on Day 2 action in St. Louis.

“Max has been a consistent multifaceted player for us over the past few years,” said Bachtler. “This decision (the move to libero to help with a minor injury) provided fruitful because Max assumed this foreign role with grace and came out ready to go on the third day for our championship run.”

Bachtler and his squad are ready for the tail-end of the season in a few months. “This season has gone pretty well so far,” he said. “But, it’s not over yet. Even when it is technically over following junior nationals, it’s not really over. These guys still are young and hopefully they can continue through the various levels of volleyball and derive enjoyment and purpose through each.”

Elite talk: The 352 Elite Boys Rox teams out of Ocala, Fla., also have fared quite well on the big-tournament front.

The Rox 16s team won the Mojo Open tournament and the Orlando Gold tournament, while securing its bid with a third-place finish at Florida Fest.

“We have had a great season,” coach Jesus Montalvo said. “We did well in Florida because they play together and they are awesome friends on and off the court. Our players know their roles and what job they need to do for us to be the best team. What impresses me the most is how they like each other. They are the best teammates a coach can have. I know they have talent, but our key has been them as teammates.”

Montalvo noted experienced players such as Eric Winn, John Ziska, Sebastian Russe, Noah Vazquez, Axel Castro, Derek Au and Jake Sanchez have their hands on the team’s success blueprint, while Nick Schelkopf is back after being out after a car accident.

“Now we have one of the best players in the age group back with Nick,” Montalvo said. “He’s back after his car accident and it’s a big miracle he is back on the court.”

The 352 Rox 14s team won a national title in 13U last year and returns the same group of players. The 14s team won the Mojo tournament and the Orlando Gold tournament in 14U and won the SCVA bid tournament in San Diego, which punched the group’s ticket to junior nationals in Arizona. The 14s squad also won the 15U division at Florida Fest. This group is led by Ryan Peluso, Sebastian Rivera, Christopher Connelly, Nico Paula, Alex Castro and Myles Grant.

The Rox 15s team won the 12U and 13U titles in 2015 and 2016 and took fifth at 14U in 2017. 352 15s won the Orlando Gold event, took fifth at Mojo, took fifth at SCVA In San Diego to earn a junior nationals bid and took second at 16U at Florida Fest.

“This team has been together for a long time,” Montalvo noted.

352 15s are led by Yadiel Diaz, Javier Crespo, Julio Vazquez, Cayden Marin, Jay Cravens, Alexander Ramos and Phillip Horn.

352’s 18s squad also has a long tenure together and has received key play this season from Hector Collazo, Juan C. Yordan, Sebastian Obrador, Jeremy Sanchez, Kelvin Sanchez, Kevin Sanchez, Lancy Aldebol and Ricardo Mujica.

It’s all academic: New York-based Academy 17 Boys Red team has steadily improved as the calendar has flipped pages. Academy took 12th in Chicago, moved up to fifth at Florida Fest and then took second at the Boys Atlantic Northeastern bid tournament.

“At BANE, the boys really grew as a team,” noted coach Rick Cole, who was impressed with the team’s passing and defense in Harrisburg at BANE. “They stepped up when two starters were down with the flu. They are a team that has really embraced the process of improving its game. By focusing on the process of growing their game, they have been improving each time they get together. They are a gritty bunch that wants to be their best, whatever that means for the team that day.”

Cole said 6-7 right-side hitter Troy von Holt was difficult to stop on the right, while Pat Wing showed his quickness in the middle. Jack Driscoll and Ben Sandt are versatile players who set and hit for Academy, Cole explained. Trey Cole leads the backcourt with the team’s libero.

“Troy leads with toughness and tenacity that is unparalleled,” Rick Cole said. “He’s a strong defender and passer.”

But Cole stresses the team’s success would not be possible to this point without an entire team effort.

“While I am proud to mention the boys listed above, it feels like an injustice to the rest of the boys who are fully impacting this team on a daily basis,” he said. “At BANE all our guys played in the finals. I don’t know very many teams that can say that. What I am most proud of this group is it is a true team. Anyone of our guys can step in and make an impact and proved that at BANE. We rallied around each other when we had to modify our game plan and we were successful. They put the team first and are committed to improving their skills. They genuinely want to be in the gym and have a fantastic work ethic. Their upside his huge. The best is yet to come for this group. We definitely are going to be a team to watch.”

Ultimate VBC 17s took first at the Dennis Lafata Gateway Boys Festival

Ultimate again: Earlier this year we updated you on the progress of the Ultimate VBC 17s team out of the Chicago area and the team hasn’t slowed a bit. Ultimate finished the pre-high-school season with a 28-1 record, which included wins at the Lewis invite, the Boys Winter Championships in Chicago and the Gateway Festival in St. Louis.

“We didn’t lose a match all season to another 17s team,” coach Troy Vidovic said.

In St. Louis, Vidovic, whose brother Jordan, was named the 2017 VolleyballMag.com girls high-school coach of the year at Chicago Marist, noted his squad excelled with first-ball contact, while both serving and passing were at a high level throughout the event, “allowing us to run our system offensively and make the game a little easier on our block and defense,” the coach added.

“We have amazing depth on the team. Every player on our team played every match. We were missing a key piece to our team due to injury and still didn’t miss a beat. Several guys are able to play different positions and in different spots defensively. In the championship, we had three different guys set along with four guys who played more than one spot on defense in the match. It allows us to maximize our matchups.”

Ultimate bested MVC in the Gateway final.

“We played a very good, well-coached team in the final,” said Vidovic. “We have had some great battles with them over the last few years. We were chasing in all three sets, but found a way to make great comebacks in sets one and three. The boys showed great resolve in the match and never panicked.”

Outside hitter Jack Yurkanin has done well after moving over from the right side last year.

“His serve-receive has improved a lot as the year has gone on,” the coach said. “He scores offensively at a high rate in the front and back row.”

Libero Danny Pacini, Vidovic noted, takes pressure off the team’s pin hitters in serve-receive “by passing a large area of the court,” he said. “Dann is very consistent on defense.”

At the service line, right side-setter Louden Moran has been a consistent stalwart.

“Louden is a big threat at the service line with his jump serve,” Vidovic said. Moran ended the championship match in St. Louis with an ace. “Louden was able to consistently score both in the front and back row offensively on the right side and was efficient as a setter when we needed him to do that situationally.”

Vidovic said court smarts and work ethic have added up to the lopsided W-L mark it has produced thus far.

“This group focuses on a consistent basis, whether it’s practice or a match,” he said. “Despite being successful all year, the boys never got complacent and continued to work hard to get a little better each time we were in the gym. This group’s volleyball IQ and overall court awareness is as good as any team I have coached in the last 15 years. For the most part, they have been together for three years and it shows in their team chemistry. We really are looking forward to the summer season with this group.”

Steadily climbing: The Aurora, Illinois-based Sports Performance 18 Elite team has been climbing the ladder to greater things throughout the season. Coach Troy Gilb’s squad bounced between the A and B brackets at the Chicago suburban Palos Points Series all season. Sports Performance was fifth at the Boys Winter Championships in Chicago where it earned a Phoenix nationals bid and then won the Gateway Classic in St. Louis.

“Winning in St. Louis was a great accomplishment for the team that always had the potential to be a great team,” said Gilb.

Gilb points to a variety of factors that powered Sports Performance to St. Louis gold.

“First, we blocked very well and played great defense around the block,” he said. “We were able to score points with our blocking which is something we have been focusing on for a while. The biggest factor was our ability to get the first-ball kill on serve-receive. We were siding out at a very high level and prevented teams from scoring with their serve.”

Stone Metz, who plays for Chicago suburban high-school power Glenbard West High School out of Glen Ellyn, was termed a rock star by Gilb for his play in St. Louis.

“He probably was the best outside hitter in the tournament,” Gilb said. “He put together a strong three-day stretch of great play both in the front and back row for us. At times, he carried the team.”

Gilb said Kevin Kauling was strong at the setting controls, consistently utilizing the team’s middles, JT Ardell and Owen Walgren, which opened up the team’s back-row attack to be successful. Libero Elliot Myong played what Gilb termed his best tournament of the season, while Felix Egharevba was a standout on the third day in St. Louis with key blocks at crucial times, while hitting for high numbers, the coach explained.

“We have been up and down all season and we are hoping to develop some consistency going into our preparations for nationals in July,” said Gilb. “What impressed me is how physical our team is and the improvements as volleyball players these guys have made. If we can develop some consistent effort in practice, we could be a tough team to match up against in Phoenix.”

Long Island standouts: The Long Island VBC 16s team snapped up its nationals bid early in the season at the Boys Invitational in Southern California, finishing fifth there. It took third in Chicago, won the Nittany Invitational playing up at 17s and took third at the recent Boys Atlantic Northeastern championships in Harrisburg, Pa.

“We were successful (at BANE) due to relaxed, spot-on serve-receive, better blocking than we’ve had, aggressive, accurate serving, terminating rallies and everyone played throughout the tournament so we had fresh legs. It was a great team effort,” coach Stacie Wixted said.

Wixted has been impressed with the play of outside Tyler Anderson, middle Nick Amoruso and libero Rimas Barzdukas.

“Tyler terminates rallies in big spots. He’s one of the top blockers on the team and has an effective pipe attack,” she said. “Nick is one of the top serve receivers — even as a middle! He keeps the team calm, rules the net blocking and attacking and has an effective jump serve and great pipe attack. Rimas is one of the best liberos in the age group, has a great float serve, reads the game, has an excellent volleyball IQ is a consistent serve-receiver and plays excellent defense.”

Wixted loves how her team plays as a group.

“No one cares who gets the credit,” she said. “They support each other and keep each other calm. We are working harder than ever. They are hungry to win their next tournament. This is a special group of players and they have the potential to be very successful.”

Striking gold: Orlando Gold’s 17s team won Florida Fest in Jacksonville thanks to plenty of pre-tournament preparation, coach Antonio Gaeten said.

“We create a meaningful and specific theme and mission statement to focus on for the tournament,” he said. “As a coach, I plan out pregame routines, dynamic and mental warmups and postgame reviews. I communicate with my players to reduce any unnecessary confusion and stress throughout the season. The most important thing is to build confidence and that helped us win Florida Fest.”

Gaeten said an all-around performance led to the top podium finish in Jacksonville.

“They did well in every aspect,” he said. “The pass was there, our setter did his job and our hitters played smart. But the two big factors that put us in the finals were our middles and our defense. They started reading the other team in a way that was hard for the other team to run its offense. Our guys are building confidence and we are trusting them more on the court and that is helping us win this season.”

Outside hitter John Diedrich had 83 percent of his attacks labeled effective.

“He never quit,” said Gaeten. “He’s a smart player and a good passer.”

Ryan Lynch was top-notch out of the libero position, while setter Nick Espilage excelled running the offense.

“Ryan is the best libero I’ve ever had,” the coach said. “He’s good at reading on defense, he plays with all his heart all the time and that was a big factor in us winning. Nick makes good decisions every play. He did the job a setter needs to do to help the team win.”

Middle Jordan Poventud also was cited for exemplary play.

“Jordan is a middle and was another factor for our team,” said Gaeten. “He’s an excellent reader on the court and thanks in part to him we got passed the final. He’s a great executer in clutch times.”

Right side Sean Boyle and outside hitter and setter Jason Camacho also helped propel Orlando Gold to success.

Gaeten said the team’s schedule to this point has been nothing but a help.

“We started a little slow trying to catch our tempo,” he said. “We played in San Diego and Chicago and played top teams such as 949 (lost in three sets), Bay to Bay and Coast. That helped us open our eyes and focus on what we need to work on and that was our confidence.

“This is my third year with this group of kids. On the court they are my players and outside the court they are like my kids. I’m proud of what we have improved on and what we will improve on in the future. I always thank God for the opportunity he gave me, putting me into a sport I love with all my heart.”

Do you have an update on your boys’ club team you would like share with VolleyballMag.com? Email Mike Miazga at mjm890@gmail.com.