Junior girls: Orlando Tampa 18s get healthy, hitting stride; Ocala powering up

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OTVA 18s, Orlando Tampa Volleyball Academy,
OTVA 18s

Are there such things as good losses?

OTVA 18s coach Aaron Harrison certainly thinks so. The Orlando Tampa Volleyball Academy bench boss points to the team’s 11 setbacks as something of a positive.

“As odd as this statement is, we have had some great losses,” Harrison said. “I have had my complete team for one tournament this season.”

That was the Boston VB Festival qualifier, where OTVA won at 18 Open. OTVA also took third at Music City, and took fifths at MLK 18s in Kansas City, Florida qualifier and the Mideast qualifier and took ninth at the JVA World Challenge. OTVA sports a 49-14 record after tying for ninth in 18 Open at USA Volleyball junior nationals in Anaheim this past weekend.

“Boston was, by far, the best tournament,” said Harrison. “It was the only one we have had with everyone healthy.”

Harrison pointed out libero Jenna Hampton missed the two tournaments prior because of injury, while L1 JoJo Coulter missed the two after Boston.

“We have competed with the best teams in the nation without my two best players,” he said. “We lost in three to Texas Tornadoes (18-16 in the third) without Jenna and lost to TAV in three (15-13 in the third) without JoJo. I am excited to have them all back for junior nationals and AAU.”

With a full roster comes continuity.

“We are starting to get our rhythm back since we have had a revolving rotation all year,” said Harrison. “Our ball control and service pressure has been our strong suits, but our offense is starting to click.”

Harrison likes how his team plays smart on the court.

“Our biggest improvement has been on the strategic side of the game,” he said. “At this level, everyone has kids who can bomb balls. We wanted to make sure these girls left the program with an advanced level of understanding on ‘why’ we do what we do.”

Harrison said Kennesaw State University recruit Danielle Ballou has made a smooth transition to the right side.

“Danielle was a very good outside for me last year at 18s,” he said. “This season we had three outsides who all are very good. We rotated all three on the right side to begin with, but Dani stepped up and made the transition the easiest. While she wanted to play outside, her versatility on the right has been the biggest difference-maker for us. She wanted to be an outside but always have had the team-first mentality.”

Harrison tabs Gabby Coulter, who is headed to Marshall, as having the best hands he’s ever seen in a setter.

“At 5-9, she is super-athletic and competes for every point,” he said. “She came into the season with a lot of previous success, but we asked her to change her tempo. We spent a lot of time in the gym working to bring her sets down and tempo up. She did a great job changing her habits and adapting to our faster-paced offense.”

Both Hampton and teammate Amanda Phegley are headed to Penn State.

“Jenna always has been one of the best passers in the country,” Harrison noted. “She was asked to lead the backcourt and she has done a tremendous job. While her serve-receive is very good, it is her defense and effort that makes her stand out. Her relentless pursuit of the ball and all-out effort on every play shows you why she will be successful at the next level. Because of that effort, we adjusted our defense to give her more court to defend and she has relished in that position.”

Phegley is termed a dominant force in the middle for OTVA.

“This year has been no different,” said Harrison. “She always steps up when we need her and never backs down, even when things aren’t going her way. She has spent many extra hours in the gym working on her pin attack and ball control for the next level. While she probably will shift to the right side at the next level, she always has been willing to compete in the middle for us.”

Ocala Power update: One of the more interesting stories out of the 18s division this season has been with the Northern Florida-based Ocala Power United 18 Rox Blue squad. Ocala finished tied for 27th in Anaheim this past weekend.

Under the direction of coach Jeff Reavis, Ocala has a roster made up of players from here, there and everywhere, headlined by setter Marlie Monserez, one of the top players overall in the class of 2018 who joined the team this year from the Orlando area. Monserez is headed to the University of Florida.

Baylor Bumford is another Orlando-based player who led West Orange High School to a Florida Class 9A state title last fall, while Kelly Hubbard hails from the Venice, Florida, area, which is about a three-drive from Ocala, Reavis noted.

Brandis Smith, a Florida State commit, hails from the Gainesville area, while Penn State commit Anne Fitzpatrick is a local Ocala product.

“Anne is an absolute hammer,” said Reavis. “She’s a tireless worker and just a great kid.”

Reavis said despite players coming from many different locales, team chemistry quickly became a strong suit.

“It’s a nice group that was able to gel quickly,” he said.

Ocala earned its nationals bid at its first qualifier in Nashville.

“We had our bid before the finals,” said Reavis. “We got in a power pool with OVA and Norco and we beat Norco and OVA and then Norco upsets OVA and we’re 2-0 and already got a bid. We’ve beat Texas Tornados in Jacksonville and beat MAVA out of Louisville twice and beat Tsunami. We’ve had a great run. Ocala has never qualified a team for open before. We’ never had enough physical players to play in this division. This is a nice thing for these kids to be able to get together and do this.”

Another key for Ocala has come from Reavis’ coaching staff where former University of Florida libero Caroline Knop has made an instant impact.

“Caroline has been a significant addition,” said Reavis. “Her presence has not gone unnoticed. She’s a fiery competitor and the girls have responded beautifully. When Caroline gets in the gym it’s on and the girls have seen her play and they respect her. She’s a great coach. It’s been a really cool thing to see with her. She made the national team gym and now she has her foot in the door there. When she decides to coach, my gosh, she will make a great coach at any level.”

When looking at the overall body of work, Reavis said it’s been a matter of “a bunch of little pieces coming together.”

“We have a libero who has come out of nowhere and we have a good lefty on the right side and two middles who work real hard,” he said. “Marlie at setter helps us be better than we probably are.”

The libero Reavis speaks of is Carly Sosnowski, who comes from The Villages, which is located 30 miles south of Ocala. The two middles are Bumford and Hubbard. Hubbard was named the Florida Dairy Farmers Class 8A player of the year, while Bumford plays middle for Ocala, but, as mentioned above, set West Orange to a state title.

And right-side hitter Smith continues to make progress.

“Brandis is a late bloomer,” said Reavis. “She played with us last year. She is going to be a really good college player.”

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