This is “Dots,” VolleyballMag.com’s weekly look at 10 things in club volleyball, past or present, that interest me and hopefully will interest you. Look for Dots every week through Junior Nationals this summer:
• “What are my chances?”
“Meaning not good, like one out of a hundred?”
“I’d say more like one out of a million.”
“So you’re telling me there’s a chance … Yeah!!”
Those are the lines from an unforgettable scene between Jim Carrey and Lauren Holly in the 1994 cult classic, Dumb and Dumber.
They sum up what teams are feeling that qualified with At-Large bids for the Open divisions at USA Volleyball Junior Nationals this summer in Chicago, and their odds of turning an At-Large bid into Gold.
• USA Volleyball’s system is designed so that all teams vying for Open Division placement at Junior Nationals will qualify at one of 12 National Qualifiers.
Three bids per qualifier. Twelve qualifiers. Thirty-six Open teams per age. Easy.
Sometimes, with multiple qualifiers stacked on the same weekend, field sizes are not large enough for three bids to be awarded. There must be a minimum of 24 teams registered to play Open for the qualifier to give out three bids.
Other times, the field is large enough, but there are many teams in the field already with Open bids. Bids are allowed to “trickle down,” but not beyond eighth place (or 50 percent of field size). If six or more already-qualified teams finish high, there might not be three bid-seeking teams finishing among the top eight.
That’s how At-Large bids are created. They are for the best teams that did not qualify for Open at a National Qualifier.
• In 2002, I attended my first USA Volleyball Junior Olympic National Championships. They were held that year in Sandy, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City.
Two years before, a Munciana team had won the 15 Open national championship. The same core group, known officially as the “Munciana Hokies,” in 2002, failed to qualify for the 24-team 17 Open field through the national qualifying process. There were only eight qualifiers at that time: SCVA, Far Western, Crossroads, Lone Star, Northern Lights, Mideast, Northeast and Tampa Bay. 8 x 3…
Muncie, coached by Dave Pilkington and captained by ambidextrous setter Kimi Freeburg and scrappy OH Amanda McCormick, received At-Large admission to 17 Open and became the first At-Large team in history to win an Open title. The Hokies defeated Milwaukee Sting to capture the club’s first 17 Open national title.
After winning 15 Open, this same Muncie group finished third in 16 Open a year later despite key injuries at the middle blocker position. As 17s, Munciana did not play many regular-season tournaments. Coaches and competing teams began referring to the Hokies as “Flying Chickens,” a name that stuck.
Freeburg, known now as “Kimi Olson,” said the team was largely blue collar and had many kids playing multiple sports, resulting in not much tournament play until basketball season was over. The team also played through an injury to McCormick, the team’s leading attacker, who could only play libero the first few months of the season to rest a bad case of shin splints developed during the fall high school season.
The team went only to two qualifiers in the spring of 2002 and didn’t qualify at either. The second qualifier, Northern Lights, came after Spring Break, when players were out visiting colleges and not practicing to get ready to qualify.
And so, Munciana, the pre-season No. 1 17s team in the nation, was left to hope for an At-Large bid to Nationals after a so-so regular season.
“We had a tough, gritty, undersized team that did pretty well all in all,” Olson said. “In the years that we did qualify, we did it in a fashion that was in playoff games, extra points, or some kind of surprising fashion. What made this team great was the grit and determination at the most critical points in the season. We elevated our game to what some may believe was ‘over-achieving,’ specifically at most JOs.”
Pilkington wrote an email to the parent group after the second qualifier failure, assuring them that an At-Large bid was likely, allaying parental fears that their kids would not be seen by the college coaches there. He also said that the players should expect to work hard between qualifier season and the trip to Sandy.
“We are capable and need to have an intense desire to improve over the last 2.5 months to be at our best come Nationals,” the email concluded.
The team rolled up its sleeves and got to work.
“I knew that we hadn’t played our best lineup nor our best volleyball, but we were getting close,” Pilk said. Plus, this is key, I had unfathomable faith in the competitiveness and leadership of two players (Kimi Freeburg and Amanda McCormick).
“We spent quite a bit of time (the last 6 weeks of the season) developing a high and deep float serve (one that goes over heads but lands in the last 5 feet of the court. The goal was to get front row players in the passing pattern to back up to make them come 25+ feet to hit a ball or to make defensive specialist that didn’t trust their overhand passing to pass a ball on forearms that was coming straight down and deep. Some would actually call the ball out only to see it land in court. We would use this is certain rotations to gain the advantage. This would also burn some timeout for the opposing team to figure out how to handle the serve/rotation.”
“We definitely had NOT played up to our potential at that point,” Olson said. “We were relieved that we got a bid and felt we had something to prove. We knew we had been there before competing against top teams in open, typically as underdogs.”
One week before JOs, two players quit: an outside and a middle, leaving just eight to travel to Utah.
“We had a meeting with the remaining players that day after practice saying that this is the team,” Pilkington said. “No team members to sub in besides the DS for Abbi Blackburn and libero for Joselyn Johnson/Kasey Goth. Basically Amanda, Samantha [Bird] and Kimi would have to play every single point of Nationals.”
On the way to Utah, Olson and her mother were bumped from the second leg of their journey to Salt Lake City.
“We were able to get in to Utah the day of competition at 3:30 in the morning,” Olson said. “I remember that we had to ref the first match and Pilk told me that I could sleep in and just come for the 9 o’clock match. This sure made for an exciting start of our tournament, as there was not a backup setter on our roster.”
On the first day of JOs, Munciana finished 2-1 and in a three-way tie for first. As only two teams from each pool advanced, the team had to play and win a tiebreaker just to stay alive.
“After that match, Kimi and Amanda talked to the team at the convention center,” Pilkington recalled. “They told the team, ‘This is it! We aren’t going to lose again.’”
They were right. The next two days, the Flying Chickens went undefeated and took over the No. 3 seed in the tournament. Muncie wasn’t winning with power, but with grit and by doing all the little things.
“We beat them with serving and moving our hitters around to make them confused,” Pilkington said. “Kimi orchestrated this game plan perfectly, always finding the set to give a hitter one blocker. Joselyn Johnson normally would 6-pack players in left or right back positions when left with one blocker.”
“People hated that we were taking down these great teams,” Olson added. “Other teams made comments about how they didn’t come to Nationals to watch Munciana beat people by tipping on them. In fact we did just that. We were the team that was willing to find any way to beat an opponent. As players we all took extra reps, and did whatever we needed to feel successful in their skills. In that tournament we did tip on teams to the point that it was comical. We probably tipped seven times in a row and teams couldn’t handle it. In fact, championship point was scored by our Right Side Abbi Blackburn with a deep tip down the line to beat Milwaukee Sting.”
Muncie went into the semifinal versus nemesis Dayton Juniors on a high note and feeling confident, until McCormick landed on a ball during warmups and fell in whiplash fashion on the back of her head.
“I was sure she had at least a mild concussion but she and her parents decided to take some Advil and see if things would improve,” Pilkington said. “They did and we won in four.”
In the championship match versus Sting, almost the exact same thing happened in warmups. McCormick landed on a ball, twister her ankle AND hit her head.
“She played through and we ended up winning the championship,” Pilkington said. “For the championship match I wore the white t-shirt the girls made me – It had all their signatures and Fighting Chickens Across the chest.”
“One thing that made this group so special is how they responded to big moments,” Olson said. “We weren’t friends off the courts- some of us were closer to enemies than friends. That is mostly true because of the competitive nature of most of us on the team that played high school against each other the rest of the year. But what stood out was the ability to dig down deep and tear teams apart point by point. The more stressful the situation, the more meticulous we became.
“We as players made game plans and specific choices on what to attack. We didn’t let the stress of failing bother us one bit. We seized the moment one match at a time. If teams smack talked, they were in trouble because every single one of us loved those moments. Our team didn’t necessarily love each other so much, but we loved volleyball, we worked hard, and we believed if we played our best we could have a chance to win it again.”
- For the 21 years that followed, no At-Large bid recipient won Junior Nationals in the Open division until last year, when Alamo 15 Premierachieved the improbable in 15 Open.Let’s revisit what I wrote about Debra Gonzalez’ team in July:The last team into the 15 Open field – indeed, the only team out of 36 that did not actually qualify for the event – won the USAV Junior National championship last Thursday.
Alamo 15 Premier, which had to wait more than three weeks after the rest of the field had been identified to learn that it was officially into the championships, pulled off one of the all-time stunners when it emerged as champions. Debbie Gonzalez’ team which finished 17th at the Triple Crown NIT and didn’t place better than fifth in any of three national qualifiers, won it all as the only At-Large bid recipient.
The team did it despite twice being swept during pool play over the tournament’s first three days.
The team did it by defeating the Triple Crown winner, 1st Alliance 15 Gold, in the quarterfinals, and the undefeated top seed and 2021 14 Open national champions, AZ Storm Elite 15 Thunder, in the championship match.
Not even storybooks imagine such an unlikely ending!
How improbable was this win? Alamo was seeded 28th out of 36 teams to start the tournament. Only two teams seeded lower than it, Mizuno Northern Lights 15-1 and Game Point 15 Rox, emerged from their first six-team pools still in contention. Both did it with 2-3 records, advancing due to tie breakers, while Alamo was 4-1, losing only to pool winner TAV 15 Black.
Alamo also lost decisively to AZ Sky 15 Gold in its three-team Day 3 pool. Scores of 25-11, 25-19. A sweep of AJV 15 Adidas, however, allowed Alamo to make the final 16 teams and get the opportunity to play its way into the Gold Bracket.
AZ Sky lost in this Challenge phase, as did Northern Lights and GP, as well as AAU Nationals champion, Legacy 15-1 Adidas, but Alamo advanced, sweeping Michigan Elite 15 Mizuno, another lower-seeded team trying to wear Cinderella’s slippers.
That left eight teams, including powerhouses like 1st Alliance and Storm, OT 15 T Randy (second at Triple Crown AND AAU Nationals), Houston Skyline 15 Royal (winner of two national qualifiers) and TAV (first at NEQ and SIX other tournaments).
Alamo, whose core group was playing Open at Junior Nationals for the first time ever, topped them all!
“Our tournament goals were to play one set at a time and control the things we could control,” Gonzalez said. “If we started looking ahead we would find ourselves in trouble.”
Gonzalez knew that her team would be a low seed, which meant facing some of the top-seeded teams early in the tournament. How the team responded to those challenges and handled the pressure of the moment would set the tone.
Alamo went 3-0 on Day 1, all sweeps, including a dominating win over the No. 10 overall seed, Surfside 15 PV Legends, which boasts OH Kaci DeMaria, one of the elite attackers nationwide in this class.
“We were certainly excited, but that was just Day 1 and we had a lot more volleyball to play,’ Gonzalez explained.
TAV, the No. 4 overall seed, handed Alamo a decisive loss to start Day 2, but the San Antonio squad regrouped and swept Id Crush 15 Bower to finish 4-1 in the two-day pool.
“The TAV match didn’t go well, but we knew that it was only one loss and we could still fight our way to the Gold,” Gonzalez said.
Alamo advanced from its Day 3 pool with a 1-1 record, clinching a spot in the Challenge phase with a sweep of Austin Juniors 15 Mizuno.
“We never lost sight of our goal and knew it would eventually come down to the crossover match,” the coach explained. “Timing was everything for us in this tournament. We stepped it up at the right time.”
Alamo played with high energy to defeat Michigan Elite to get to the eight-team Gold Bracket. The team got there thanks to meticulous game planning and tremendous execution.
“Our game plan for each of our wins gave us great confidence,” Gonzalez said.
Reaching the championship match after downing 1st Alliance in the quarters and Drive Nation 15 Red in the semis, Alamo faced a formidable obstacle in 10-0 AZ Storm, the 2021 14 Open national champions and winners of two national qualifiers.
“We played Arizona Storm in the Utah Qualifier,” Gonzalez said. “We were the only team to take them into three sets. This helped in our game plan. They are an awesome team with great hitters and a lot of height. We served them tough and we served their top hitter to keep her moving and active, ultimately limiting her opportunities.
“After Set 1, it was apparent that this was working. Before Set 2, we emphasized the importance of sticking with the same game plan and remaining focused. I could see the determination in their demeanor, that this could be their shining moment.”
Megan Fitch, a 6-1 OH, earned MVP honors for Alamo after the upset was complete. She was outstanding in six rotations and a terrific leader. OH Mya Allen, who emerged this tournament as a consistent scoring threat and was strong on the first contact; and libero Brooklyn Vigil, whose strong defense was integral; joined Fitch on the All-Tournament team. Gonzalez was upset that only three of her players could be recognized, because “this was a total team effort and all our team members were worthy of such recognition. It took our whole team to accomplish the unimaginable.”
Gonzalez noted that Kaia Thiele played well at setter and Ashtan Dodson contributed several big blocks on the pin. MB Aniya Hall was an offensive threat at the net and fellow middle Elly Stewart provided a big block and positive energy. Tarah Yunes and Emma Gonzalez Manrique gave the team energy and effort off the bench and Ella Coleman and Allison Butrum, both injured, were terrific teammates and positive influences.
“In my many years of coaching, this is one of the greatest stories of all times,” Gonzalez added. “I am just grateful to have gone along for the ride with these magnificent young ladies. It has truly been an honor.”
- This season, there were nine At-Large teams in the high school age divisions we cover: five in 15 Open and two each in 16 Open and 17 Open. The 15 Open group, as a collective, is especially accomplished and will present challenges to the qualified field.The teams with a chance to wear the glass slipper are:15 Open
Alamo 15 Premier (TX)
AZ Sky 15 Gold (AZ)
Top Select 15 Elite (FL)
Triangle 15 Black (NC)
WPVC 15 Armour Black (FL)
Legacy 16-1 Adidas (MI)
Michigan Elite 16 Mizuno (MI)
CITY 17 Gold (CA)
Miami Hype 17N Emilio (FL)
• Gonzalez finds herself in the same position this year with Alamo 15 Premier, a team that is 46-22 on the year and had three top 10 qualifier finishes, including a fourth-place showing at Big South, just outside of bid position.
“We competed well this season but were shy of qualifying,” Gonzalez said.“The players, my assistant and I were very excited about being selected to play in 15 Open at Nationals in Chicago.”
Gonzalez said that the coaches have been stressing to the team the need for taking advantage of second chances.
“When you get that opportunity, you have to utilize it,” she explained. “Playing hard and finding your grit is a must. You need to play with a purpose, staying engaged and that every ball matters. Opponents are not going to allow you to win. You need to earn your spot if you want to be at the top.”
• AZ Sky 15 Gold made it to 15 Open on the strength of its T-5 at Red Rock (7-1; loss only to national No. 2 TAV 15 Black) and its incredible showing at the Triple Crown NIT in February, where it tied for third.
AZ Sky currently stands 42-19 on the year and has top players like OH Brooklyn Jenkins, MB Jordyn Joppru, libero Marianna Garcia and setter Vivian Hickman on its roster. Julia Larish’s team finished 22nd in 14 Open last year and has an upgraded roster that showed at Triple Crown that it can compete and win against the very best of this age group. This is a team that definitely could make some noise.
• Top Select 15 Eliteis 39-15 on the year and beat six teams in the field, including three that won qualifiers. The Florida squad played in just two National Qualifiers, placing fifth at Big South and seventh at Sunshine.
“We only played in two national qualifiers this year and skipped our regional, so to get an At-Large bid was a big deal,” said coach Charles Wolsonovich. “The team did very well in both tournaments, so we felt like we had a good chance at a bid, but these things should never be expected. The girls were extremely excited.”
Wolsonovich said that his team will not just be content to be an “Open team.”
“A lot of teams/coaches have this attitude that once you get a bid, you can relax because the pressure of earning a bid is over,” Wolsonovich explained. “I told the girls that the real pressure starts now. We want to take advantage of the extension to our season and get the most out of it, not be content with just earning a bid.”
Top Select isn’t a particularly tall team, but the athleticism that runs through the roster makes it a formidable opponent.
“I feel the team is in a good place to compete with a lot of teams this year,” the coach explained. “In order to win at Nationals, they’re all going to need to play at a high level. They can’t count on one or two players to carry them.”
• Triangle 15 Black is 52-18 on the season and loaded with kids projected to be Power 5 Conference recruits at the next level. The team placed fifth at Big South and fifth at Sunshine before faltering at Lone Star, but has shown the ability to play at a very high level, when healthy.
Indeed, health has been the issue for Triangle, which had a six-rotation outside diagnosed with leukemia at the beginning of the season and has had multiple other attackers miss time due to injury. Triangle had has to put liberos in hitting spots and go out there and compete.
“The girls have been working hard in practices and [getting the At-Large bid] was just a little extra motivation,” said coach Alston Godbold. “I am excited to see how we can perform with no injuries.”
• WPVC 15 Armour Black, from Winter Park, was 17th in 14 Open last year and 45-18 during the 2023 season. The team had two top 10 finishes in three qualifiers and thought it had done enough to receive an At-Large bid.
“My reaction upon hearing the news was super excited because it means that we get to compete at the highest level for four days,” said coach Matt Jackson. “When we broke the news to the team, all the girls started screaming and jumping around. We have been telling the team that they earned this At-Large bid due to their ability to show up and win against teams at the Open level through the duration of the season and now we have to make that our standard level of play for an entire tournament for us to give ourselves an opportunity to win against all of our opponents.”
Last year’s team won six matches at Junior Nationals and added southpaw RS Isa Umpierre for more firepower.
“I firmly believe that we can and will do damage at this tournament,” Jacksons said. “Our team plays with a lot of fight and has talent in all positions. Isa Umpierre is a huge game-changer for us. If she is playing out of her mind then there is almost nothing that can stop her or us.”
- Legacy 16-1 Adidas (MI)and Michigan Elite 16 Mizuno (MI), both of which finished T-13 or better at 15 Open a year ago, got the At-Large nods in 16 Open this year. Legacy, which features the top Class of 2025 setter in the nation, Campbell Flynn, is 43-17 on the season and finished top 10 in three of four qualifiers.Michigan Elite also was inside the top 10 in three of four qualifiers, with a best of fifth at MEQ. The team is 49-13 on the year, showed its strength by placing sixth at Triple Crown and is led by OH Isabelle Busignani.Both could easily place among the top 10 with a strong four days.
- City 17 Gold and Miami Hype 17N Emilio were selected to play in the 17 Open division. Neither played Open last year. Miami Hype was second in 16 USA. CITY tied for fifth in 16 Open at AAU Nationals with a 10-1 record.CITY is currently 38-8 and put together fifth-place finishes at both SLC Showdown and PNQ.Miami Hype is 46-20 and had a strong Triple Crow, placing 10th; before more pedestrian showings during the qualifier season.
“We were really happy to receive the news that we were awarded the At-Large bid,” noted CITY’s coach/director Stefanie Wigfall. “We knew that we were at the top of the list to possible receive it based on our qualifier performances, and a high number of wins against the qualified field. But you never know- so we were relieved and very happy.”
Wigfall said that she was optimistic that her team would compete well in Chicago.
“We realize every team in the field is a strong team, and it is some very little things that oftentimes separate the good teams from the great ones,” she explained. “We have spent a lot of time analyzing our play, our deficiencies and where we need to close gaps. I am telling my team that by working extremely hard and efficiently over the next month, we can be prepared to step in and continue to beat the teams we have in the past, and rack up some wins against those we fell short against. We are confident we can train and be ready.”
The team will rely on setter Kate Duffey, newly committed to UCLA; and RS Kennedy Osunsanmi, the team’s leading point scorer. And they have a secret weapon, with OH1 Danica Rach expected back after March shoulder surgery.
“Losing her was a huge blow to our team as she is a six-rotation player who contributes significantly in all stat lines,” Wigfall said. “Having her back will be a huge boost – and earning the At-Large bid with her out has given the team a lot of confidence.”
Until next time …