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 Tuesday through Junior Nationals this summer.
• After what seems like several weeks off for prom, graduation, rehab and rest, there was some honest-to-goodness girls club volleyball played over the long Memorial Day Weekend.
Not a lot.
And certainly not like two decades ago, when Memorial Day Weekend signaled the start of the push for the nation’s elite teams to get ready for the end of the season.
This past holiday weekend in 2023, the best volleyball wasn’t being played in Florida, Texas, California or the Great Lakes Center in Illinois. Instead, it was in Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Sting Volleyball Center, where 60 teams, total, competed in the 14-17s age groups.
• 1st Alliance 17 Gold went undefeated to capture the 17 Open division at the Prep Dig Gauntlet in Milwaukee. The team I have ranked seventh nationally , playing for the first time since Easter, came back onto the court, sharp, focused and energetic. Libero Ava Falduto, back from the Pan Am Cup, led the team with 15 aces, 84 digs and also had 15 assists. A goal for the tournament was to improve the team’s setter/middle connection. Mission accomplished as Ellery Rees contributed 32 kills. The pins stayed hot, with Grace Nelson getting 62 kills, Ellie White tallying 55 and Calli Kenny chipping in with 40.
“The team’s collective first contact was elite, passing a 2.43 and accumulating 54 aces,” noted coach Danielle Mikos. “17 Gold also finished with 257 total digs. It was a complete team effort for the weekend’s success.”
• Milwaukee Sting 16 Gold avenged two of its three Power Pool losses in bracket play to take the 16 Open division at the Gauntlet. Dave Bayer’s team avenged Northern Lights 16-1 in the semifinals and Michigan Elite 16 Mizuno in the championship match,
Sting had not played since the Northeast Qualifier four weeks ago and didn’t play clean the first two days, Bayer said. But after a captain-led, players-only meeting, the team came back Monday with a different mindset. The team won its quarterfinal in two over 1st Alliance 16 Silver, rallied from eight down in Game 2 to dispatch Lights in straight sets, then rallied again from down 9-5 in the third versus Michigan Elite to finish the championship match on a 10-1 run.
“Strong serving and defense helped lead the comeback,” Bayer said.
Sting was led offensively by MB Gabriella Pitcel, OH Madison Quest and RS Allie Beers and defensively by libero Olivia Durst and DS’s Katie Berezowitz and Natalie Power.
• It’s been a season of highs and lows for Milwaukee Sting 15 Gold, but going into the Prep Dig Gauntlet they were out to prove themselves as true competitors.
“A lot of the competition would be others that were qualified in the 15 National Division, so coming out strong was important,” said coach Caroline Riley.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the team went undefeated, with big wins over Northern Lights 15-1, Circle City 15 Purple and 1st Alliance 15 Gold.
The team headed into championship day looking to complete its mission. Sting almost was derailed in the semifinals by a tough Illini Elite 15 Cardinal team that had beaten it in February at Triple Crown. After getting crunched in the first set, Sting bounced back to take the final two.
The team faced Circle City 15 Purple in the finals, a rematch from Saturday play.
The team came out focused and ready to execute its game plan. It maintained control and kept a great ball control team out of system in winning the championship, 25-20, 25-21.
Sting’s offense was led by Brooke Baldwin and Ella Kohnen, both of whom set and hit right side; and by outside Natalie Surges. Siena MacCudden and Cassie Bruns anchored the defense.
• When the JVA West Coast Cup began in 2017, it was supported by most of the strongest clubs in the Southern California Volleyball Association. Sunshine and Tstreet still sent multiple teams to this event in 2023, but most of the other powers – Coast, WAVE, San Gabriel Elite, SCVC, Surfside, Mizuno Long Beach, for example – were nowhere to be found. What seemed watered down to some meant opportunities for others…
• Actyve 17 Black cashed in the opportunity in the 17 Open division, going 8-0 in the 20-team field.
“The team stayed composed and patient all weekend,” noted director Lainey Gera. “They didn’t allow anything to rattle their confidence, which allowed them to go undefeated after three days. Great weekend overall for the team going into SoCal Champs!”
Standout performers included S/RS Emma Rowell, who stabilized the offense with her decision making as both a setter and an attacker; MB Amelia Bechtel, who slowed teams down with her defense at the net while also being aggressive; and libero Gemma Larbalestier, whose calm demeanor in the back row allowed her hitters to stay aggressive knowing she had their backs.
The other major winners were Tstreet LV 16 Trevor in 16 Open and Tstreet 15 Curtis in 15 Open.
• WVBA 18 Adidas, NPJ Seattle 16 National and CPA 15 Benson were the big winners at the Emerald City Classic in Seattle.
CPA 15 Benson, from Spokane, went 10-0 over three days.
“We were feisty and relentless all weekend,” said coach Jill Benson. “Winning was a complete team effort. Playing for each other and celebrating together contributed greatly to our success.”
CPA had to scratch and claw on Day 3 for the title. The team, which was the sixth seed to start, escaped No. 3 WVBA 15 Adidas, 16-14 in the third, to make the semifinals. CPA then eked by No. 2 SIVA Lightning 15-2, 26-24, 29-27.
The championship match was a rematch of a Day 2, 3-set pool play match against Oly Reign 15 Gold.
The final again went the distance, as both teams played great defense, served, and attacked very well. Better serving propelled CPA to the 15-4 Game 3 win and the title.
Outside hitter Mara Sandberg, an eighth grader, led the way for Benson’s squad.
“She leads the team vocally with her fight to win and her effort to make plays,” the coach said. “She had some extremely timely and intelligent offensive play this weekend.”
Others who shined included libero Jade Livingston, a vacuum on defense who received the Candis Carter Inspirational Award for the top U15 Defensive Player; lefty RS Ashlyn Aaron, who upped her game as an attacker and blocker and made big plays; and S/RS Noella Migliuri, the tournament MVP, who played her best volleyball of the season in all aspects this weekend.
• Downstate Juniors had a big weekend at the East Coast Championships in Pittsburgh. The club, located north of New York City, won the 17 BOE and 16 BOE divisions.
Downstate 16 Black won the 16 Beast of the East division. Setter Vance Forte found great matchups for her hitters in winning time and OHs Brenna Delaney and Samantha Kranzler, along with RS Chloe Snyder, all hit over .300 on the final day. In addition, the team served over 90 percent with more than 30 aces over the final three matches.
Downstate 17 Black was the 17 Beast of the East after avenging a crossover loss to Niagara Frontier 17 Navy in a straight set championship match win. In the finals, Boston College commit Sequoia Lane was unstoppable from the outside. Downstate hit over .560 as a team with no errors in a semifinal win over an Infinity 17 Green team (trying to make the match go on and on and on).
Maryland club MVSA 15 Charge went 8-1 to win the 15 BOE division.
“This weekend’s win was a total team effort,” said coach Jackie Krampf. “Across our matches, each of our players had individual bests and played together with great team effort. The team was able to serve tough and pass well, which are the two skills you want to be successful. It’s hard to identify just a few athletes. They all contributed in great ways to this weekend.”
Raegan Lentz had an outstanding weekend.
“Her positive energy on the court and her team spirit off the court had a winning impact on the team,” Krampf said. “Along with her outstanding blocking and hitting, her serving and defense as a middle this weekend was outstanding and kept us in games. You expect middles to hit and block, but not necessarily be your best defenders. Raegan was truly outstanding in the back court this weekend.”
Libero Elly VanLandingham had her best weekend digging and passing and was key to team success. So, too, was Celiana Caraballo, who was fantastic in serve receive and was a clutch server at key moments in matches.
Taryn Su and Kendall Connors did a fantastic job running the offense. Su led the team in assists and aces and was among the team’s dig leaders in all matches.
“She is able to deliver the ball from anywhere on the court and has created great trust with her hitters,” Krampf said.
The hitting and blocking from pin hitters Ellie Mitchell and Eden Tardy on the left, and Sydnee Peters and Fallon Gyapong on the right, and Lentz and Rebecca Thatch in the middle was, according to Krampf, “fierce and definitely a primary reason for our victories this weekend. We were able to show firepower from all three positions with speed and consistency. Something we have been working on all season.”
“We are all very proud of how the team played this weekend,” the coach continued. “ It’s really fun when it all comes together.”
• Last week we published our Junior Nationals At-Large guide for the Open divisions. Here’s more info on 16 Open At-Large recipient Michigan Elite 16 Mizuno (the team that placed second this past weekend at Prep Dig).
Coach Neil Rucinski said that he was relieved after learning of his team’s selection.
“These girls been giving me everything all season, and I was just proud that there work wasn’t unnoticed,” he explained.
He said the team has been working hard since receiving the invitation and is grateful for the opportunity to compete against the best of the best.
The team is built around six-rotation outsides Isabelle Busignani and Jessica Costlow, who are threats from all areas of the court. Setter Ella Craggs continues to grow in the position, libero McKenna Payne has been stellar, middles Shelby Ignash, Lauren Johnson and Victoria Gray, and RS Gabrielle Babinski can take over matches and Sophia Barber and Addison Newblatt are reliable defenders who add physicality to the back row with their ability to hit from behind the line.
“I definitely believe we can throw some damage out there,” Rucinski said. “We have the pieces in place and the grit with it. This team has the depth and ability to go the distance.”
• Here’s a little more on 15 Open At-Large team AZ Sky 15 Gold:
Julia Larish said that her team was excited to get the bid and will show up motivated and ready to compete.
“I have been telling my team that we worked hard all season for this,” Larish said. “We competed in three of the toughest travel tournaments this year. Their efforts in those tournaments helped them earn this opportunity and we will continue to evolve as a team and to prepare for Chicago mentally and physically.”
For the team to do well, setter Vivian Hickman, libero Marianne Garcia, outsides Brooke Jenkins and Sienna Markovich and MB Leylah Duran will need to be at the top of their games. If MB Jordyn Juppro and pin Claire McNeil “play out of their minds,” Larish thinks that her team can compete for a medal, just as it did in placing third at the Triple Crown NIT.
• Well, it’s just about two weeks before the 50th AAU Girls National Championships get underway in Orlando. More than 4,000 teams have registered to compete.
The 18 Open event, which will run for four days starting June 14, has just 13 teams enrolled. Two of them are Munciana 18 Samurai and Sports Performance 18 Elite, the two dominant 18 Open teams at AAUs for the past 15 years…
The 17 Open, 16 Open and 15 Open divisions, starting June 22, June 26 and June 18, respectively, have more robust fields. Several elite teams that qualified for Junior Nationals in Chicago are “doing the double” to bolster field quality in Orlando.
The 17 Open division, which has 62 teams, is headlined by A5 17 Jing, but the age group also will have other traditionally tough clubs like KiVA, K2, Legacy, Mintonette, Northern Lights, Tri-State, Rev, OTVA, FaR Out and Circle City, along with intriguing newcomers Miami Hype and Rockc.
The 73-team 16 Open division has three teams in my national top 10, A5 16 Gabe, Adidas KiVA 16 Red and Sports Performance 16 Elite. The field also includes seven others in my top 25, making this one of the tougher fields in this age group all season.
Finally, the 62-team 15 Open division boasts an intriguing cast that includes four of my top five teams nationally: No. 1 Dallas Skyline 15 Royal, No. 3 Mintonette m.51, No. 4 Legacy 15-1 adidas and No. 5 Boiler Juniors 151E Gold. The field will have at least 10 more very competitive squads, making for a very compelling event.
It’s getting close, folks!
Until next time …