This is “Dots,” VolleyballMag.com’s weekly look at 10 things in high school volleyball, past or present, that interest me and hopefully will interest you. This is the first edition of the 2023 girls prep season. Look for Dots every Tuesday until the last high school state championship in November:
• Five months after Ann Kang guided Iolani School to its first Hawaii girls state volleyball title in 2001, the former Rainbow Wahine player, and 20-year coach and teacher at Iolani, was diagnosed with ALS. The disease took her life 19 months later, at age 47. She left behind her husband, Alan, the first-ever women’s coach at the University of Hawaii; and two young children.
Ann Kang, whom I counted as a friend, was beloved because she was a kind and compassionate teacher, both on the court and in the classroom. The school thought enough of her to name Iolani’s season-opening tournament after her. It is the “Ann Kang Invitational” and has been, for almost two decades, the event that marks the unofficial start to another fall season.
• The 2023 Ann Kang Invitational occurred this past weekend in Honolulu. A total of 16 teams, four from Texas, six from California and six from Hawaii, including Baldwin from Maui; participated in the three-day event that started on Thursday.
Two teams expected to be in contention for the mythical national championship, Mira Costa of Manhattan Beach, California; and Cornerstone Christian of San Antonio; met for the championship, with Costa rallying from a first-set loss to win the title for the second consecutive year.
“We had a great run in the playoffs,” said Mustang coach Cam Green. “I’m really proud of them and how we started our season.”
• While Cornerstone Christian, which features two of the top pins in the country in junior OH Megan Fitch and senior RS Grace Carroll; went 7-0 in Pool B, dropping just one set to Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth, California, in a tight match; Mira Costa was at risk of not making the semifinals after dropping a Pool A match on Day 1 to Punahou of Honolulu. The Mustangs had two swings for the match before dropping Game 3, 18-16. Mira Costa got some help on the second day from unheralded California squad, Los Alamitos, which outlasted Punahou in three sets. That eventually created a three-way tie for first at 6-1.Punahou was the odd-team out and ultimately settled for fifth place overall.
In Pool B, Huntington Beach’s sweep of Sierra Canyon on Saturday morning did not prevent the Trailblazers (5-2) from making the semifinals over Huntington Beach and the host school, Iolani, which also finished 5-2. That set up a semifinal round pitting Costa against Sierra Canyon and Cornerstone Christian against Los Al.
• Charlie Fuerbringer is the senior star setter for Mira Costa. The Wisconsin recruit is the top-rated pure setter in the Class of 2024. Fuerbringer, however, was not with her Mustang teammates in Hawaii. Instead, she was halfway around the world in Croatia helping the USA U19 Women’s National Team win Gold at the FIVB World Championship.
Green had three setters capable of leading Mira Costa in Fuerbringer’s absence: senior Hayden Linn and sophomores Milly McGee and Reese Stringer.
“We went in knowing we could still compete,” Green said. “I thought we’d still be pretty darned good without Charlie, but early in the tournament it looked like it was going to take us some time to get going. We lost to Punahou in a tight match that could have gone either way. As tournament progressed we grew stronger and kept competing. It was really cool to see this group bond together.”
One bonding moment the team will never forget occurred around a laptop, where Mustang players, coaches and parents huddled to watch Fuerbringer come on as a sub on Friday and rally the USA to the five-set win over Türkiye.
Outside hitters Abby Vander Wal and Teraya Sigler, who are both ranked among the top five players in the Class of 2025, led the way all tournament long for the Americans. RS Abigail Mullen and MB Favor Anyanwu, who also are top five national recruits in the Classes of 2025 and 2024, respectively, also were catalysts in the championship match win, along with Fuerbringer.
“To watch her win a gold medal was beyond unreal,” Green recalled. “We were all so excited.”
• Cornerstone Christian led the first set of the Ann Kang championship final, 22-9, at one point.
“We were getting crushed,” Green conceded. “I told the girls, ‘These blowouts don’t mean much. See what you can do at the end of the set to build momentum.’ Sure enough we flipped it around. The third set was close at first but we pulled away at the end. What a great way to start!”
Sophomore OH Audrey Flanagan, who played JV last year but emerged as one of the top players in the Class of 2026 during club season with SCVC 15 Roxy; was named tournament MVP. She was joined on the all-tournament team by RS Chloe Hynes and all-world libero Taylor Deckert.
Fitch, who was MVP when Alamo 15 Premier won Junior Nationals at 15 Open in 2022; and Carroll, a 6-5 Baylor recruit who transferred in from Alamo Heights High School; represented Cornerstone Christian on the all-tournament team. Others who played well for the Warriors included setters Kaia Thiele and Natalia Jackson and defenders Maria Avandano and Giselle Ojeda.
“I was very pleased with my team and their growth throughout the tournament,” said Cornerstone Christian head coach Mike Carter. “We faced so many big teams and responded well.”
Mira Costa took the plunge collectively after outlasting Cornerstone Christian to win the Ann Kang Invitational in Honolulu on Saturday.
• Both Mira Costa and Cornerstone Christian will be among 64 teams in Las Vegas on Sept. 22 and 23 for the 28th Durango Fall Classic. I am responsible for seeding the tournament and, let me tell you, the field is top-heavy with monstrously good teams. Not only will the best of California be represented; the top two teams in Texas, arguably the best teams in Kentucky, Utah, Idaho and Nevada and a traditional Hawaii powerhouse are all in the field.
We are still five weeks away, but here’s what the unofficial top 16 teams look like:
1. Prestonwood Christian Academy (TX)
2. Mira Costa (CA)
3. Cornerstone Christian (TX)
4. Cathedral Catholic (CA)
5. Saint Francis of Mountain View (CA)
6. Sierra Canyon (CA)
7. Mater Dei (CA)
8. Huntington Beach (CA)
9. Assumption (KY)
10. Marymount (CA)
11. Torrey Pines (CA)
12. Archbishop Mitty (CA)
13. Kamehameha (HI)
14. Branson (CA)
15. Redondo Union (CA)
16. Skyview (ID)
The top 16 currently leaves out Utah large-class state champion Lone Peak, Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman, Arizona stalwart Xavier College Prep and traditional California power Lakewood. That’s how good this field is at the top!
Note that Marymount won Durango in 2021 and went on to be the consensus undefeated national champions. Cathedral Catholic won in 2022 and went on to be the consensus national champions.
Who will emerge this year?
• The consensus choice appears to be Prestonwood, despite a stunning five-set loss on Saturday to McKinney Boyd in the finals of the Rockwall Tournament.
The Lions, who were 40-1 a year ago playing all comers and captured the TAPPS 6A private school state title in Texas, was touted as perhaps the best team in the storied history of Dallas-area volleyball in the pre-season by the Dallas Morning News.
And with good reason. Prestonwood has a head coach, Ryan Mitchell, with a history of winning state titles – he won seven at Lovejoy starting in 2008. The Lions also have a roster loaded with high-level Division I talent, including junior OH Cari Spears, transfer RS Taylor Clarke, a national champion with Dallas Skyline 15 Royal; and the Livings twins, Naomi and Nyla, freshmen from the TAV 14 Black national champs, and sisters of senior superstar hitter Jadyn Livings.
• Angie Strickland, who led Tallahassee Leon to state title in 2011 and 2019 during her 14-year tenure as head coach of the Lions, was removed this month after a parental complaint led to a brief investigation that reportedly found that the old-school coach used the death of a father on two separate occasions to motivate the deceased parents’ daughters during practice.
The 17 page report says the following:
“Coach Strickland, with the obituary in hand, asked Student 1 if she thought she was playing like her dad would want her to play. She also asked if Student 1 thought her dad would be proud of how she was playing now,” the report said. Student 1 reported this happened one month after her father died, during the 2017-2018 season.
“Student 1 stated that the remarks made by Coach Strickland in front of her teammates were traumatic and still affect her now,” the report said.
When asked about the allegation, the report says “Coach Strickland did not recall having an obituary or using those strategies with the players.”
Another student who played for the Leon Volleyball team in 2021 shared a similar scenario.
“The players were practicing for a playoff game when Coach Strickland stopped the drill and asked Student 3 if she seriously thought her dad would be proud of the way she was playing right now,” the report said. “Her father was deceased.” She too says the incident has caused “lasting effects.”
In response to that complaint, the report says “Coach Strickland does not recall using those strategies with the players.”
This is not the only time Strickland has been accused of wrongdoing. The Florida Region of USA Volleyball sanctioned her for alleged misconduct in 2021 while coaching for Tallahassee Juniors.
Last Tuesday, six players and their parents spoke at a school board meeting in support of Strickland. Some were upset that they were not asked about their personal experiences with the coach.
When contacted, Strickland said that she could not comment as the matter was ongoing.
• In Utah, defending state champion Lone Peak starts the season as No. 1 in the 6A poll, but the Knights will be without longtime head coach Reed Carlson. Instead, Carlson will coach Bingham. Carlson, who won six state titles at Lone Peak starting in 2016, stepped down at Lone Peak after last year to help launch the boys club season at Club V now that the sport is high school sanctioned. His brother, Matt, the current coach at Park City, was slated to take the Bingham job but stayed on at Park City. Bingham then offered the position to Carlson.
“I told them I’d step in this year to see if we can help the program change their culture, etc., so we will see,” Carlson said.
Bingham is ranked No. 2 in 6A to start the season.
• The Fredericksburg Victory varsity volleyball team secured an impressive victory on Friday against Valley Thunder in the debut match for both teams in the Virginia Home School Athletic Association. Victory showcased its signature potent serving in the sweep by setting a new organizational record with an astounding 23 aces throughout the three-set contest. Selah Stamper led the charge with five aces, while Eden Wright and Kayla Hamburger closely followed with four each. Three more players chipped in with three aces apiece.
Until next time …