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Tawa’s Club Dots: Let official qualifier season begin; Godspeed to a coaching legend

This is “Dots,”’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:

  • I blinked and qualifier season is upon us.Yes, the 18s qualifiers have been here since MLK weekend (with approximately 25 teams qualified already in 18 Open), and Northern Lights continued to mix things up with a 17 Open qualifier in January, five weeks before any other national qualifier in this age group.Wednesday is March 1 and for 20+ years I have associated the month of March with the start of qualifier season. In that spirit, I am thrilled to inform you that the Northeast Qualifier gets underway with 17s this weekend while the Sunshine Classic in Orlando has both 16s and 17s.

    NEQ’s 23-team 17 Open field is headed byRockwood Thunder 17 Elite, which is a top 15 team nationally.Houston Skyline 17 Royal and Metro 17 Travel are two other highly-regarded teams that could make serious noise in Philly.

    Down south at Sunshine, the fields are fuller for Open, with 39 teams in 17 Open and 40 in 16 Open. Both fields are robustly talented. A5 17-Jing, TAV 17 Black, OT T 17 Aaron and Triangle 17 Black, all top 10-type teams, are in 17 Open, while Triple Crown runner up Houston Skyline 16 Royal headlines the 16 Open field, which also includes OT T 16 JP, tough Michigan Elite 16 Mizuno and resurgent A5 16 Gabe.

    • Before last weekend, there were only three teams qualified in Open for Junior Nationals in Chicago: A5, Dynasty 17 Black and Premier Nebraska 17 Gold, all from that January Northern Lights qualifier.

    Well, they have company this week, because the Sunshine Classic held its qualifier last weekend for the 13-15s age groups. Now the middle school divisions are too young for us, but we cover 15s…

    And the three teams to qualify are:

    1. Mintonette m. 51
    2. Tribe 15 Elite Cardinal
    3. Austin Skyline 15 Royal

    Mintonette, which went 5-4 at Triple Crown the weekend before, redeemed itself with a 10-0 showing at Sunshine, including a win over an Austin Skyline team that beat it in Kansas City. Max Miller’s team defeated Tribe 15 Elite Cardinal, the best South Florida team in many years, in the championship match.

    Miller said that the team that showed up in Orlando is more like the team that won 14 Open at Junior Nationals last summer than the team that went 5-4 at Triple Crown.

    “We have typically not performed well at Triple Crown due to lack of match reps,” he explained. “With just a one-day event under our belt and never really having too much 6 v. 6 drills in training, it’s hard to compete that early.”

    Miller said that his team picked up its serve and pass game at Sunshine and got terrific offensive production from OH Layla Hoying and MB Alia Schoonover.

    Mintonette now has five weekends before its next major competition at MEQ in Indianapolis.

Tribe earned its bid despite a pedestrian 6-4 record. Dean Barboza’s squad did not travel to Triple Crown and instead dominated an Orlando event before returning one week later for the qualifier. The team had a fortunate run, finishing 2-1 in all three of its pools. OH Gigi Artiles was a catalyst in Tribe’s Day 3 win over tough Legacy 16-1 Adidas to clinch its Gold pool and a bid.

Austin Skyline also defeated Legacy for its bid, in the third-place match. It marked the second time in a week that the Texas team had downed Legacy, as the teams also met in the quarterfinals at Triple Crown. From 6-4 OH Riley Malloy and S/RS Sydney Lund, Austin Skyline has all the ingredients to be a major player in this age group all season long.

• In the meantime, 18s qualifiers keep chugging along. If it’s a weekend in the winter, it must be time for another 18s qualifier! This past weekend, the qualifiers took place in New Orleans and Atlanta.

Mavs KC 181

At Music City in New Orleans (the event’s new home after leaving Nashville), MAVS KC 18-1 won the 18 Open qualifier one week after a T-5 at Triple Crown. MAVS also won the MLK qualifier in Kansas City.

“The team was battling fatigue and injury and managed an 8-1 record,” noted coach Beau Barnthson.

AZ Revolution 18 Premier, Circle City 18 Purple and Houston Skyline 18 Royal finished 2-4-4 to claim the three 18 Open bids. The three qualifiers combined to go 21-5 for the weekend, with losses only to one another or to MAVS.

At the Southeast 18s qualifier in Georgia, Gainesville Juniors 17/18s continued to surprise by winning the 14-team 18 Open event. Gainesville previously qualified at Florida Fest.

In this event, Gainesville went 9-0 and swept two deuce sets from vaunted A5 18-Marc in the first place match.

• In addition to the qualifiers in Philly and Orlando, the docket this week includes the venerable Bluegrass Tournament in Louisville, still known to us veterans as the “Bluegrass Pre-Qualifier.”

I will be traveling to Louisville, which may not be good news for anyone traveling with me. Two weeks ago, my flights were canceled or delayed traveling both to and from Kansas City for Triple Crown. I lost a day covering the tournament when mechanical problems grounded my plane to the event and a day at home when delays and heavy winds cause a missed connection in Phoenix.

Last weekend, I drove from my home along the Central Coast of California to Bakersfield to cover wrestling for the California Interscholastic Federation (Yes, I am that versatile). What could go wrong with travel in California when you are driving? The road I took to Bakersfield was closed due to snow, flooding and mudslides, forcing a 50-mile diversion north. Sheesh! So look out Bluegrass travelers. You have been forewarned!

Now, about Bluegrass, this is a tournament that crams a whole lot of volleyball into TWO days and includes most of the major players in the Midwest, both traditional JVA clubs and longtime USA Volleyball sides.

• Bluegrass power pools the top teams on the first day, followed by challenge matches and a Gold pool the next to determine a champion.

With that in mind, here are my bold predictions:

18s — Samurai over Circle City for first. SPVB and KiVA tied for third.

17s — Pineapple over Academy for the title. NKYVC and Tri-State in third.

16s — Sports Performance over Munciana Blaze for first. Circle and Academy Cleveland in third.

15s — Boiler Juniors over FaR Out for first. Elevation and TVC tie for third.

Check back next week to cheer or boo these bold picks!

• Speaking of NKYVC, the club ruled the Pioneer Bid Tournament last weekend. Every Tsunami (first) team from 12s to 18s won their bracket without so much as a dropped set! Four additional NKYVC teams earned additional bids. Impressive!

• Bluegrass is the first major tournament for the Sports Performance volleyball club, which feels a little forgotten this time of year since its power league and President’s Day events have struggled of late. The club still has loads of talent.

Let’s shine a spotlight on sophomore setter Audrey Asleson, who led Benet Academy to the Illinois state 4A final in the fall. Asleson, who stands 6-0, sets SPVB 16 Elite. She is a very athletic setter with great foot speed and a 10-1 jump touch, which help her both as a blocker and when she opts for her own offense. Sports Performance has a history of developing great setters – Maggie Griffin, Nellie Spicer, Lauren Carlini, Kelly Murphy come to mind immediately – might Asleson be the next great one?

Club Fusion 18 Apex

• Club Fusion 18 Apex played 18 Open in St. Louis over the President’s Day Weekend. Seeded dead last out of 24 teams, the team finished fifth! Henry Graack’s squad lost meaningful matches to the top two finishers. Setter Jessica Parker, RS Anja Kelly, MB Lauren Benson, OH Kate Goudreau and libero Nina Schuberth led the way.

• Circle City 17 Purple was one of those teams Fusion could not overcome. 17 Purple played up and excelled, its only loss to Circle City 18 Purple in a barnburner of a final that went 18-16 in the final set.

“I thought the team took a huge step in the right direction with our on-court team chemistry,” noted coach Chris Due. “They were all playing for each other and it really showed with how well they played and the end result. Since our 5th place finish at Central Zone, we have been working hard on our service pressure, ball control, and offense and it really paid off.”

The team did suffer some tough news when six-rotation OH KK Christy went down with a significant injury in a match versus Alliance 18 Ren.

Sophia Mayo had a great weekend on the outside for 17 Purple. Scarlett Kimbrell excelled in the middle and on the left when she had to fill in for Christy. Alexis Maesch had a great weekend on the right and Dakota Elliott, who missed Day 1 due to illness, played beast mode the final two days as both a blocker and hitter.

• Chloe Sutake averaged 2.1 kills and added 48 total blocks as a 5-11 junior on the right side for Westfield High in Indiana this past fall.  The 17-year-old, who plays club for Team Indiana, also is the newest Certified EMT in the state of Indiana. She was the youngest in her class, had the highest score on the physical portion of the exam and recently passed the written exam.

Sutake’s TI Elite 17.1 team will be at NEQ in Philly this weekend, an extra layer of protection if you add a little too much artery-clogging “with wiz” to your cheesesteak.

• Another week, more sad news to report from the volleyball world. Rocky Ciarelli, a titan in Orange County volleyball circles as a coach of players and mentor of coaches, died one week ago of a heart attack. He was 66 years old.

Ciarelli coached high school volleyball, mainly on the boys’ side, for 32 years, 24 of them at his alma mater, Huntington Beach. His last five seasons, he coached boys at Newport Harbor, retiring after leading his 2019 Tars to a 39-1 record and the Division 1 titles both in the Southern Section and Southern California Region.

Here’s what Eric Vallely, who coached Newport Harbor to the top of the state boys volleyball rankings last spring, posted on Facebook:

“Words can’t describe what this man meant to me. Rocky, you and Dan [Glenn] were the reason I got back into coaching after many years away from volleyball. You were the best coach, best mentor, amazing friend, but most importantly it was fun to watch you as an amazing husband to Cammy, an amazing father, and an amazing grandfather. The impact you had on this earth is felt far and wide we will all miss you so, so very much! Love you Rock! Thank you for being in my life.”

And from Craig Pazanti, boys and girls coach at Huntington Beach:

“Rocky was a coach and a mentor to so many athletes over the 32 year he was a high school volleyball coach. He will definitely be remembered for his passion for the game, but more important was his ability to shape young athletes into responsible young adults. He is the reason so many of my friends and teammates got into coaching. He will be sorely missed every day in the volleyball world. There is only one Rocky!”

Until next time …