It’s an easy headline to write — and 100 percent accurate — as Premier Nebraska 18 Gold defeated Adversity G18 Adidas, 25-19, 19-25, 15-13, to win the 18 Open division of the USA Volleyball Girls 18s Junior National Championship in Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday afternoon.
That Premier Nebraska also had to overcome adversity — little “A” — makes its first-ever Open title that much more surprising and oh so much sweeter!
“It was an incredible ride!” head coach Shannon Smolinski exclaimed.
PrepVolleyball.com ranked Premier Nebraska No. 5 nationally in January, showing high regard for a team whose core group had never won any major tournament at the club level – no Triple Crown NIT, no major pre-qualifying events, no national qualifiers and certainly no national championships.
The high ranking was fully justified, however, given that the team boasted an elite-level setter in Phyona Schrader and two of the finest attackers in the nation in Lindsay Krause and Norah Sis. All were coming off of incredible high school seasons. The trio had played club together for four years already and possessed unquestioned chemistry.
Premier Nebraska justified its high ranking late in January, when it qualified second at the Northern Lights National Qualifier. The team went 7-2, losing only to tournament champion MAVSKC 18-1. Both losses came in three sets.
The championship-match loss to MAVS at Northern Lights was where Premier Nebraska’s adversity began. Krause, considered the top attacker in the country in the Class of 2021, suffered a right MCL sprain and other knee-related injuries. They would keep her from the front row for the rest of the season.
Playing without Krause, Premier Nebraska placed fourth at the Asics Omaha President’s Day Classic and T-5 at Crossroads. The team was competitive but not elite-level. That point was underscored the weekend before Junior Nationals, when 18 Gold lost to Nebraska Premier’s 17 Gold AND 16 Gold teams at a local tournament.
The team wasn’t just facing adversity during matches, however. Two of its core members, a defender and a middle, decided against participating at Junior Nationals. One made the announcement just three days before the team was set to depart for Omaha! This left Coach Smolinski scrambling to complete her roster. She tabbed libero Skylar McCune, from the 17 Gold team; and OH Lauren Medick, from 15 Gold; to join the team. Neither was able to practice nor play with 18 Gold before Columbus …
There was some good news coming from the 18 Gold camp. Krause would not be able to play front row, but she could be on the court for the first time since January. Smolinski put the 6-3 Krause, one of her undisputed team leaders, in the libero jersey and hoped for the best.
The opening, six-team pool did not favor Premier Nebraska. It included national No. 10 SA Juniors 18 Adidas and the MAVS team it was 0-3 against. With a roster of nine, which included two newcomers and the limited Krause, merely advancing out of pool play wasn’t enough. The team needed to win its pool, which would reduce its playing burden by one match.
“Finishing first was of the utmost importance,” Smolinski said. “We did not want to have to play two Challenge matches.”
The team, with Krause playing libero and the newcomers blending well, showed innate natural chemistry. Premier Nebraska swept its three matches on Friday to put it in position to contend for the pool.
“After we played our first couple of sets, I thought, ‘This could be something special,’” Smolinski shared.
All of the positive momentum came to a screeching halt on Saturday morning, when AZ EVJ 18N1-Tempe rallied from a set down to hand Premier its first loss of the tournament.
“EVJ outhustled us,” Smolinski said. “It was a wakeup call and we were thankful for it.”
The players were hanging their heads after the loss, but Smolinski knew that the loss could be made irrelevant.
“All of that goes away if you beat MAVS,” she told her team. “You have to take care of business and take first in the pool.”
Despite being 0-3 on the year against MAVS, Smolinski had a feeling that her team would win this time. She was right. Premier Nebraska won the first set handily, then took advantage of MAVS using the wrong server to turn around a Game 2 deficit and go on for the sweep.
The pool was theirs.
Later on Saturday, Premier Nebraska competed in a three-team Challenge bracket to get to the Gold quarterfinals.
The pool was daunting. Premier Nebraska would face off against the winner of national No. 9 Houston Skyline 18 Royal and No. 8 A5 18-Scott. Those teams played a marathon, which went to A5, 15-11 in the third.
A5 went into its second Challenge match undoubtedly fatigued and Premier Nebraska took advantage, by exploiting A5 in serve-receive and finding ways for Sis and Medick to score. Premier won, 25-19, 25-20, to move within one win of a medal and three wins of the title…
Smolinski had trouble sleeping on Saturday night. Not because she was worried or nervous. She was excited!
“I knew there was still a lot of work to be done,” she said.
Usually, when Smolinski-coached teams win a big match, Smolinski experiences a feeling of disbelief. “Did we just do that?” That was not the case this past weekend.
“I was not surprised that we were winning these matches,” Smolinski said. “Every time the kids won this weekend, I expected it.”
Sunday morning started with a sweep of FC Elite 18 Elite.
“They’re big and long and setter Brooke Mosher caused us trouble, but we executed a good game plan,” Smolinski said.
The win clinched the first national championship medal for the team since it won Silver in the 15 National division back in 2018. That’s right! This same core group that was contending for the title on Sunday did not even qualify in Open as 15-year-olds, nor were they given at At-Large bid.
Undefeated Elevation 18-Goller was up next. The Cincinnati club was hotter than hot, coming off successive sweeps of Encore 18 Goldhahn, Tstreet 18-Kasia and Arizona Storm Elite 18 Thunder, the team that knocked out top-seeded and previously-undefeated TAV 18 Black.
OH Carly Hendrickson, a powerful junior committed to Florida, had been a dominant force for Elevation in its run to the semifinals. Premier committed to slowing her down, so setter Megan Wielonski went to MB Hailey Green and she was sensational. Elevation also put perpetual pressure on Premier with its serve.
“Their serving was the best out of any team we faced,” Smolinski said.
Elevation took the first set, 25-19.
Smolinski knew her game plan needed to change. Premier had to pay attention to Elevation’s middles and hope that Schrader, the team’s 6-0 setter, could have success blocking Hendrickson. The team’s lineup changes included moving McCune to the right side to have her on the floor in six rotations. Regular RS MC Daubendiek became a blocking sub and Bridget Smith, a setter/DS, was a serving sub.
The changes, along with the play of middles Brynlee Arnold and Sophi Steffes, were effective. Premier Nebraska used tremendous late blocking to squeak past Elevation in Game 2, 25-23.
Game 3 was a titanic struggle between two teams playing high-level volleyball. Elevation had at least one match point – Smolinski was too mentally exhausted to remember all the details – but Premier Nebraska prevailed in overtime, 18-16.
Smolinski did remember how the final point was scored: Smith was blown up by a massive Elevation swing in right back but kept the ball alive. Daubendiek tipped the ball, as it came towards the net, from right front deep to zone 1. It dropped into the back corner! Premier was going to the ‘ship!
Smolinski had had her eye on Adversity since the two teams first met at Northern Lights in January, a 25-23, 25-23 Premier Nebraska win (with Krause hitting).
As the tournament went on, Smolinski found herself liking her team’s chances against just about anyone. Schrader was commanding the offense and finding ways to score on second contacts. Sis was dominating on the left. Medick wasn’t playing like a freshman at all and was an able complement to Sis on the left pin. And Krause passed lights out.
“She passed unbelievable, played great defense and was a true leader of this team,” Smolinski said. “Between her and Norah and Skylar and our freshman, we had four of the best passers in our program on the court.”
Adversity was another animal, however. Ranked sixth nationally, the two-time qualifier winners had a tall, elite setter/hitter in Rachel Muisenga and a strong middle attack led by Gigi Barr.
“I knew that Adversity was going to be a buzz saw,” Smolinski said. “To not see them until the last match was huge for us.”
Adversity entered the championship match undefeated for the tournament and coming off of a dominating semifinal win over previously-unbeaten Union 18-UA. The Chicago-area team, coached by Marco Quintana, did not drop a set in winning its pool and crushed Mizuno Northern Lights 18-1 in its Challenge match. Only Mintonettte m. 81, which Adversity defeated, 21-25, 31-29, 17-15, gave it any trouble. But the team recovered from that ultra-close call with a 25-18, 25-10 rout of Union to enter the final with momentum.
Premier Nebraska blunted that momentum in the first set. The team took a 3-4 point cushion early and never relinquished it.
“We served aggressively and went quick in system,” Smolinski said. “We did a really good job of not letting their phenomenal middles score.”
Adversity turned in the tables in Game 2. Premier Nebraska became timid serving the ball, Adversity’s passing picked up and its defense to transition offense was in system and produced a passel of points. During time outs in the set, Smolinski told her team that every ball it sent over would have a consequence. She stressed taking the ball to zone 1 every time Muisenga was in the back row.
Smolinski said that her team couldn’t execute the plan in Game 2 but knew it was important and started to do it in the final set. Premier Nebraska also picked up its serving and was able to get Adversity out of system a lot. Add the touches Premier’s blockers got to slow down Adversity’s attack and the Nebraska squad played Adversity point for point to the end.
Premier called time out down 10-8, Adversity’s largest lead of the set. Premier scored three straight out of the break to take an 11-10 lead. With Krause serving tough and Adversity making uncharacteristic hitting errors, Premier Nebraska earned two match points at 14-12. Adversity sided out for 14-13 and Smolinski called time. She moved Sis, who was in the back row, to middle back to run the bic. Smolinski wanted her best healthy attacker to take the most important swing of the match.
Adversity might have noticed the change – it’s hard not to notice that Krause wasn’t in the middle of the serve-receive pattern – and anticipated that Schrader would try to get Sis the ball. The serve was passed off the net near the 10-foot line. Rather than setting Sis, Schrader fooled everyone by dumping the second contact. It was well-executed and found the floor.
This Premier Nebraska team, which had never won anything of consequence together, was the 18 Open Junior National champion!
“It’s so surreal,” Smolinski said. “I have no words. It fully hasn’t set in what they accomplished.”
“This group has been a pillar upon which Premier Nebraska was built,” she continued. “To have these kids … I’m so humbled.”
Sis was named tournament MVP. Schrader and Krause joined her on the All-Tournament team. But this was a total team effort from nine players who’d never practiced nor played together before the tournament began. They all made plays that contributed to the championship run.
The celebration continued at lunch, after trophies and medals were conferred, photos were taken and lifetime memories were cemented.
“I don’t think we stopped talking the whole time of every big moment the entire time,” Smolinski said. “It’s fitting that we played Adversity, because we had to overcome adversity to win.”