It’s a busy time for top-level 18s team with tournaments the nation over, including the USA Volleyball girls’ junior national championships in Anaheim and the Showdown in the Smokies in Knoxville, Tenn., and the JVA Kansas City Classic.
VolleyballMag.com recently caught up with a few of the teams that have had strong seasons.
Lexington United: United has a 40-11 overall mark that includes titles at Central Zone and JVA Buckeye Battle, a second at Bluegrass and a fifth at the JVA World Challenge.
Club director Chris Beerman points to a match with Circle City as a key turning point in the team’s season.
“Beating No. 1 (at the time) Circle City in the Central Zone final was big and got our season off and running,” Beerman said. “Our run on day two at Bluegrass was great as well. We also had some nice wins in the MEPL and at the JVA World Challenge as well. We’re getting better as the season progresses.”
Berrman pointed to blocking, serving and the dig-to-kill transition as bright spots, while major strides have been made with setting and ball handling.
Leading the charge for United are the likes of Allyson Cathey, Kaitlyn Hord, McKenna Vicini and Jaymeson Kinley.
“Allyson has been a great addition as a point-scoring, physical pin attacker,” said Beerman. “Our middles Kaitlyn and McKenna have been strong as shutdown blocker and main attacker in serve-receive and transition and Jaymeson is a rock-steady libero who makes huge plays routinely. The entire team has played well this year.”
Passing is critical.
“That’s the bottom line for us to beat the best. In the set we beat Munciana at the JVA World Classic we passed very well, but couldn’t sustain it for the match. We must pass the ball. When we are in system we are really tough.”
Aspire: This Arizona-based squad has had some big moments this season.
“We played great volleyball in Nashville,” coach Ryan Tolman said. “We went undefeated and dominated the field, only dropping one set all weekend. At Triple Crown, we took third with only eight girls. We were missing two starters. We’ve been dealing with some minor injuries since Nashville, but are starting to hit our stride again.”
Constants for Aspire include captains Brooke Nuneviller and Lanie Wagner, along with Anna Morse and McKenna Smith.
“We get consistent effort and contributions from Brooke and Lanie on the outside,” said Tolman. “They are the heart and soul of the team. Anna anchors our defense at libero with max effort all the time, but our team is really tough to beat when McKenna, our setter, is playing well. She has stepped up this year and is making good choices and setting with great tempo and consistency.”
Tolman likes how his team has been performing on defense and also is a fan of the diversity of its offense.
“We are playing really good defense right now,” he said. “It’s always been what we pride ourselves on, but we seem to be clicking well defensively at the moment. Our biggest improvement has been the overall diversity of our offense. We have been outside-heavy in the past, but now we have found some good contributions and consistency from our middles and right pin.”
Tolman sees passing and performance from the service line as ways his team can continue to make noise.
“If we can pass and serve well to keep us in system, our middles can stay involved and then we will find some mismatches on the pins,” he said.
Legacy: Success this season for Legacy, from Novi, Michigan, can be attributed to the contributions from the new and the established.
In terms of veteran play, outside hitter Abbey Malinowski continues to shine. Malinowski has been a captain for coach Ricky Cottrill the last two seasons.
“Abbey is a true leader and competitor,” said Cottrill. “She is one of those players who coaches love. It’s hard for me to take her off the court because she is the glue that holds the team together. She also is my best passer. She passes at a crazy 2.6.”
Cottrill also complimented outside hitter Maria Mallon.
“Maria also has been my captain for both years I’ve coached the team,” the coach added. “Maria is a spark plug. She probably is one of the most competitive girls I have ever coached. She is a little undersized for an outside hitter, but you would never know it. I would put her mentality and ability up against some of the best outside hitters in the class of 2018. She definitely one of them.”
Setter Celia Cullen stepped in for graduated standout Erin O’Leary.
“Celia has really improved over the last four months,” said Cottrill. “It’s not easy stepping into the shoes of Erin O’Leary, who set this team the last two years—especially as a sophomore. She is getting better with tempo and knowing when to set who, reading her blockers and making the right decision. She is a competitor who loves to compete.”
Libero Hannah Grant is new to the team as well.
“Hannah has brought the confidence and grit to this team,” said Cottrill. “She loves the game of volleyball. She competes every single point and is one of the best liberos I have had the opportunity to coach. She reminds me of Jenna Lerg, who is the current libero at the University of Michigan. She also has a great set of hands so we are never really out of system when the setter digs.”
Legacy brings a 39-8 mark into Anaheim with a win at the Ohio Valley qualifier, runner-up finishes at Rock n’ Rumble, Triple Crown NIT and the Boston qualifier, as well as a third-place showing at the Mideast qualifier.
Like numerous other coaches at 18 Open, Cottrill said the Salt Lake City Triple Crown event was an eye-opener for his squad.
“The way we competed in that tournament against the level of competition was great to see,” said Cottrill.
Cullen (Michigan State commit) and Grant (Michigan State commit) both were new to the team at the time.
“They were able to get to know the girls better because we do this trip as a college-like trip where no parents go,” the coach noted. “We ended up losing in the finals to a very strong Munciana team in three (16-14). I think that tournament was kind of our jumping point.”
Legacy has thrived this season thanks to passing and Cottrill has the numbers to prove it.
“We’re excelling at serve-receive right now and we are passing at 2.54 as a team, which is probably the highest of any team I have coached over my 15 years.”
But the hidden key for Legacy is at the net. “Our biggest improvement is our blocking,” said Cottrill. “We have spent a lot of time working on this. I think we are getting better every day because this is new to the girls. They really haven’t had the opportunity to swing-block in the past so we are continuing to improve.”
Cottrill said Legacy just needs to compete and have fun in Anahaim.
“This team already is probably one of the most successful club teams to come out of Michigan. If you could name one more successful I would be surprised. They just have to play to their abilities and realize they have nothing to lose. If we block well and take care of the ball we are going to be tough to beat, especially the way we serve-receive. It is going to be fun to see what happens. I am very confident in this team. Now we just have to play with some swag.”
KC Power: KC Power has surpassed the 30-win total heading into Anaheim. Power took first at MLK and was fifth at Nike President’s Day in Indianapolis.
Coach Gwenn Pike liked her team’s final match in the MLK tournament against Northern Lights. While it was early in the season, Pike and her staff felt it was a match where the team came together.
“Defense and blocking schemes seemed to really click,” she said. “We had lost earlier in the tournament to Lights and then bounced back to show some fight in the final match.”
Pike, who added major improvements have been seen in the blocking and hitter-setter connection departments, has been thrilled with how her team has been working hard in the practice gym leading into the national finale.
“The team is excelling right now with embracing the mindset of the importance of practicing,” she said. “They have been focusing on each practice being important and making every practice count toward preparing best for nationals. They know this ride will be over soon and they are preparing to the best of their mental and physical ability in order to have the best nationals experience they can.”
Taylor Kuper, Jaiden Chase, Anna Dixon and Annika Welty make up a quartet of players who have turned things up of late.
“Taylor enthusiastically embraces whatever role we need her in whether it be defense or front-row swing,” Pike said. “Jaiden always is steady and is focused to compete. Anna has found a way to up her intensity and focus of late at practices and will be a difference-maker for us at nationals. Annika gives maximum effort with transition and attention to detail with blocking.”
Putting the ball away, aggressive blocking and ball control are keys Pike sees to achieving success in Anaheim.
“We have to maintain ball control to keep our offensive options open,” she said.
Circle City: The Indiana-based club was 36-7 heading into Anaheim after winning MEQ and Windy City and taking second at Central Zone.
“Winning the two qualifiers was good, especially MEQ,” coach Scott McQueen said. “We looked very smooth defensively.”
Leading the charge for Circle City is Caitie Baird (6-3, OH-DS) and Allison Denneman (5-10, OH, Pacific signee) on the outside, along with Jael Johnson (6-3, MB, Purdue) and Emma Jones (6-2, MB, University of Indianapolis) in the middle.
“Caitie and Allison have been great on the outside and Jael and Emma have been forces in the middle,” said McQueen.
McQueen said his team’s key to success at junior nationals is simple. “We have to compete on every play to have a chance at advancing this weekend,” he said.
Munciana: Munciana boasts a 49-1 record that includes wins at Rock n’ Rumble, Triple Crown NIT, Blue Grass, Mideast Power League and JVA World Challenge.
“The event that stands out in my mind as a catalyst for success was Triple Crown in Salt Lake City,” coach Mike Lingenfelter said. “We were beyond tested by some of the nation’s best, had a new lineup and were a bit untested to that point. It was a great event that provided us with the confidence necessary to play at a high level for longer stretches of time.”
Lingenfelter cited numerous instances of recent strong play, including Jonni Parker’s development into a six-rotation scoring threat. While Melanie Shaffmaster had been a lifetime 5-1 system setter, Lingenfelter praised her development of “elite attack skills” to aid the team’s 6-2 attack. Kylie Murr was lauded for her leadership.
“Even though she’s a youngster, we’ve relied upon her to develop leadership skills,” Lingenfelter said.
But the coach noted Megan Miller’s position shift may be the key development of the team’s run.
“It’s perhaps the biggest adjustment,” he said. “Megan had always been our libero, but at 5-5 became our L1.”
Lingenfelter has been impressed with his team’s ball control.
“First-ball contact skills have been our focal point of practice all year.”
And what else has spurred the 49-1 mark? “Competitive consistency,” said Lingenfelter. “I’ve been begging all year for our squad to play harder for longer periods of time.”