PLEASE JOIN THE TEAM!
Keep free volleyball journalism free by becoming a VolleyballMag.com Sustaining Member: https://volleyballmag.com/sustaining-membership/
Or make a contribution through Venmo @VolleyballMag
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.
• With Qualifier season over, attention turns to filling the Open fields with At-Large participants — those teams deemed to be the best of the best but which did not qualify at a National Qualifier.
In 16 Open, the one At-Large spot was filled by Arizona Storm Elite 16 Thunder. Storm’s five wins against the qualified field and finishing in Gold in every tournament it played apparently gave it the edge over Six Pack 16s, which was 44-11 with three qualifiers finishers of T-7 or better.
In 15 Open and 17 Open, we are still waiting to see which teams will earn the one At-Large bid from each division. Announcements are expected today.
In 15 Open, we still expect the bid to go to Alamo 15 Premier, which is 49-15 and ranked No. 20 nationally by AES. Alamo placed T-5 at the Salt Lake City Showdown, T-7 at the Sunshine Classic and 11th at the Lone Star Classic. Moreover, Debra Gonzalez’ team has a whopping eight wins against the qualified field.
• If you’re a careful and faithful reader, then you know that last week I declared that the 17 Open field was finalized, with three bids being awarded at each of the 12 National Qualifiers.
That changed subsequently when Arizona Storm Elite 17 Thunder, a qualifier at Far Westerns, forfeited its Open bid. Storm, coach by Aaron Payne, finished third in Reno, but brought down a middle who played with the 18s at 18s Junior Nationals the weekend before AND had helped that team qualify in 18 Open. The latter fact made the roster at Far Westerns illegal and forced the forfeiture. Had Storm qualified in Reno without the middle, she could have been brought down for Junior Nationals, but she was not allowed to help two teams qualify for the national championships.
“I made a mistake,” Storm club director Terri Spann admitted. “I was told I was allowed to add an 18s player to a roster once our season was completely done. But because my 18s played in Open and qualified in Open, I could not have a player play in another National Qualifier in Open and help that team qualify. So, yes, while her 18s nationals was complete, because she helped another team qualify in Open, it is an illegal move. This is something that was my fault as a club director and I take full responsibility of my error. It’s a hard lesson to learn.”
“Terri used it as a teaching moment for our girls showing humility and how to take responsibility without excuse,” Payne said.
“We started that weekend focused on how we play and not the outcome,” Payne added. “Our girls played incredible and carried it into our last region tournament. We are ready to go compete in nationals and it wouldn’t matter if we were in Open or Patriot, we are coming to play great volleyball. Period. I’m very proud to be a part of Storm.”
• Storm’s withdrawal opens the door for Top Select 17 Elite Blue, which, at No. 23 in the AES computerized club rankings, is the highest ranked team hoping to be in Open at Junior Nationals without qualifying. Top Select had top 10 finishes at Sunshine and Big South.
• Who will be the favorites to medal in the 15-17 Open division at Junior Nationals in Indianapolis in late June/early July? Based on qualifier finishes, here are the teams one would expect to be in the mix:
Drive Nation 17 Red – 1st Lone Star, 2nd Red Rock, 2nd Triple Crown NIT, T-3 NEQ
Circle City 17 Purple – 1st NEQ, 1st Bluegrass, 2nd MEQ, 2nd Windy City
1st Alliance 17 Gold – 1st Northern Lights, 1st Windy City, T-5 Sunshine
Club V 17 Ren Reed – 1st Far Western, 1st Salt Lake City, 5th Red Rock
WAVE 17 Juliana – 1st Big South, T-7 Red Rock
A5 Mizuno 17 Jing – 1st Triple Crown NIT, 2nd Big South, 2nd Sunshine, 5th NEQ
Dynasty 17 Black – 1st Sunshine, 2nd NEQ, 4th Northern Lights
The above seven teams demonstrated the most consistency at major events this year, but they are by no means the only medal contenders in an ultra-talented 17 Open field. Others who could break through include TAV 17 Black, Houston Skyline 17 Royal, Coast 17-1, Premier Nebraska 17 Gold, Madfrog 17’s National Green, OT J 17 John and Legacy 17-1 Adidas. Also, don’t sleep on Sunshine 17-LA. This group has the coach and the talent…
Dynasty 16 Black – 1st Northern Lights, 1st MEQ, 1st Windy City, 1st Triple Crown NIT, 3rd Show Me
A5 Mizuno 16 Gabe – 1st Sunshine, 1st Bluegrass, 2nd Northern Lights, T-3 Big South
WAVE 16 Brennan – 1st Red Rock, 2nd Big South
Colorado Juniors 16Sherri – 1st Salt Lake City, 2nd NEQ
1st Alliance 16 Gold – 2nd MEQ, 2nd Sunshine, 2nd Windy City
OT T 16 Jason – T-3 Sunshine, T-3 Big South, T-3 MEQ, T-3 Triple Crown NIT
NKYVC 16 Tsunami – 2nd Triple Crown NIT, 2nd Show Me, 3rd NEQ, 3rd Bluegrass
In addition to the above seven, other teams to watch include Mizuno Long Beach 16 Rockstar, Premier Nebraska 16 Gold, TAV 16 Black, Circle City 16 Purple, Vision 16 Gold, Triangle 16 Black and Metro 16 Travel.
Arizona Storm Elite 15 Thunder – 1st Red Rock, 1st Salt Lake City
Houston Skyline 15 Royal – 1st Northern Lights, 1st Sunshine, 3rd Lone Star
Circle City 15 Purple – 1st Windy City, 3rd MEQ, 3rd Show Me
1st Alliance 15 Gold – 1st Triple Crown, 2nd MEQ, 3rd Windy City, T-5 Sunshine
Dynasty 15 Black – 1st MEQ, 2nd Show Me, 2nd Windy City
OT T 15 Randy – 1st Big South, 2nd Triple Crown, 3rd Sunshine, T-5 MEQ
Mizuno Long Beach 15 Rockstar C – 2nd Far Western, 2nds Salt Lake City, 3rd PNQ
Others to watch in 15 Open include Nebraska ONE 15 Synergy, TAV 15 Black, Austin Skyline 15 Royal, Legacy 15-1 Adidas and HJV 15 Elite.
• We asked club coaches to tell us the teams they expected to be on the medal stand in the Open divisions in Indy. Here are the leading vote getters in 15 Open, 16 Open and 17 Open:
Arizona Storm Elite 15 Thunder
1st Alliance 15 Gold
Mizuno Long Beach 15 Rockstar C
TAV 15 Black
Dynasty 16 Black
NKYVC 16 Tsunami
A5 Mizuno 16-Gabe
Colorado Juniors 16Sherri
Circle City 17 Purple
Drive Nation 17 Red
Legacy 17-1 Adidas
A5 Mizuno 17-Jing
• How many clubs qualified teams in all of the high school-aged Open divisions? The number, as of right now, is eight.
• Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve asked coaches to identify the players they’ve most enjoyed watching so far this club season. Here are the names we saw most, with any commentary we received.
Class of 2022
Ella Wrobel, 6-4 OH, Sports Performance 18 Elite — “Like Chloe Chicoine in terms of impact but has more pieces around her.”
Class of 2023
Chloe Chicoine, 5-9 OH, Circle City 17 Purple — “She just goes up and over so effortlessly.” “Always 100% laser focused, almost impossible to stop and one of the best passers in the nation.” “Everyone knows who Chloe is at this point. She demands tons of attention and still dominates in 17 Open.” “She’s the only player in the country who stops me dead in my tracks to watch for a few minutes. She has to be the most fun club player I’ve watched in the last 10 years.”
Harper Murray, 6-2 OH, Legacy 17-1 Adidas — “Complete player who plays with power and control. Effective from the front and back row.” “She has evolved her game this year and is a much more dynamic and crafty player this year.”
Lauren Ingram, 6-1 OH, Dallas Skyline 17 Royal — “Coming off an ACL injury that sidelined her for her sophomore season, she came back stronger than ever.”
Olivia Babcock, 6-5 RS, Sunshine 17-LA — “Best jump serve I have seen in club volleyball.”
Nayeli Gonzalez, 6-2 OH, Alamo 17 Premier — “Always capable of the highlight but has added consistency and shots.”
Jurnee Robinson, 6-0 OH, A5 Mizuno 17 Jing — This is my pick. An asset in all six rotations, a fighter! Won’t accept anything less than everything.
Class of 2024
Avery Jackson, 5-10 OH, Madfrog 16’s National Green – “Undoubtedly the best six-rotation outside I have ever seen.”
Skyler Pierce, 6-2 OH, Dynasty 16 Black – “Never has a bad game.” “She flies through the air and I have yet to see a team truly slow her down.”
Izzy Starck, 6-1 S/OH, Colorado Juniors 16Sherri – “Truly a threat anywhere on the court.” “With a 10-3 vertical, can get up like no other setter I’ve seen.”
Class of 2025
Reese Messer, 6-0 S, Dynasty 16 Black – “Powerful, athletic, smart and skilled.”
• VolleyballMag.com gives a loud shout out to Madyson Brinson, a Class of 2023 athlete playing for JJVA 16 Teal. Brinson completed her Gold Award – the highest award possible in Girl Scouts. She teamed up with Elite Home Health and the Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department to promote fire safety for the elderly. Her work and community service enabled her to become one of 12 girls in Florida awarded this distinction at the recent Girl Scout ceremony.
Brinson is a true student-athlete who maintains a 4.29 weighted GPA who is very active in her school and community.
“Madyson has made her JJVA coaches, staff and teammates so very proud!” exclaimed recruiting coordinator CJ Sherman.
• Did you know that, back in 2017, Texas Advantage Volleyball had teams in the championship match at Junior Nationals in the 14 Open, 15 Open, 16 Open, 17 Open AND 18 Open divisions? TAV won titles in 17 Open and 15 Open. The 17 Open title was the first of too many to count for coach Ping Cao, now at Drive Nation. The 15 Open title was the first for coach LJ Sariego.
• TAV probably should have won 16 Open, too. The championship match, which Ohio’s Mintonette m.61 rallied to win,probably ranks as the most exciting I’ve ever witnessed. Let’s re-visit that with the recap I wrote back then:
16 Open: Tale of Woe Becomes Tale of Whoa!
Mintonette m.61’s Mac Podraza saw the opening and used her long arms to finish the setter dump midway through the second set of the 16 Open championship match on Tuesday at USAV’s Junior Nationals in Minneapolis. Trailing just by one at 16-15 to TAV 16 Black, the closest her team had been since the opening points of the set, had Podraza finally given Mintonette reason to believe that it could turn the momentum in its favor?
Of course not.
Just as TAV had done all match long, and as it did in the semifinal previously against national No. 1 A5, when challenged, TAV went on a run. Janell Fitzgerald produced two powerful right side rips and Mykayla Myers contributed a big kill and even bigger block. TAV had responded to Mintonette’s push by pushing back harder. The Dallas team scored six of the next seven points and led 22-16, three points away from a dominant sweep for the Gold medal.
So, when m.61 middle Chia Nwokolo got an ace block to get her team to within 22-17, it did not register on the Richter Scale of significance. And when fellow middle Brianna Hollingshed followed with a block of her own, well, that was nice but really only delayed TAV’s coronation.
Texas Advantage, you see, had been in control and dominant the entire match to that point. Mintonette tried to stay within touch of the TAV machine but, like Sisyphus pushing that rock, every time the Columbus-area club got close to the top of the hill, that rock seemed to come crashing back at them. Mintonette was good. Just not good enough.
That TAV was having its way with Mintonette was surprising because Max Miller’s team had been the most dominant of the eight Gold Bracket teams on this Fourth of July day. TeamD was buried under m.61’s onslaught in the quarterfinals, 25-16, 25-15, and Summit-Nitro fell victim in much the same way in the semis, 25-17, 25-19.
TAV, meanwhile, got killed in its first set of the day before rallying to dethrone AZ Storm in three, then won two tight semifinal sets versus A5 to get to the final.
Mintonette was the fresher team and was playing better going into the championship match but none of that seemed to matter when Fitzgerald and Myers, Sophia Miller and Symone Wesley started unloading early in the first set for TAV. In no time, Jason Nicholson’s team had doubled the score on its Ohio opponent, 10-5, and seemed to have a parry for every Mintonette thrust. When Riley Wagoner scored on the right as part of a 4-1 run to get m.61 within 13-12, TAV scored two in a row on a tip from Satasha Kostelecky and Wesley block. When Olivia Margolies scored on a well-placed and well-timed tip to give Mintonette hope, Miller extinguished it with a dig that went for a kill in a 4-1 stretch that extended TAV’s advantage to 19-14. And when Nwokolo blocked for a second straight point to get her team close enough to make things interesting, a Fitzgerald kill and Wesley ace catalyzed a 5-0 TAV run to eight set points.
Mintonette’s players were working hard but their effort was not enough. Not on this day versus determined TAV.
After Myers’ fifth kill finished off Game 1, 25-17, Mintonette came out for the second determined to make a fresh start of things. Wagoner’s successive kills to open the set gave m.61 hope but it quickly evaporated under an avalanche of kills from Myers and digs from Wesley and libero Haley Hoang. The score was 8-4 TAV and the Texas team, which had already won Gold in 15 Open and 17 Open, was on its way to completing a golden summer. And Wesley was going to be THE story.
Wesley, a six-rotation OH, sat out the previous day’s action after banging her right knee on the ground so hard on Sunday that when she awakened on Monday she was unable to walk. On Gold Bracket day, Wesley, a Houston Cougar recruit, was so committed to play that she dragged her right leg onto the court to warm up for the 8 a.m. quarterfinal and performed several jumps in a row in the hopes of showing Coach Nicholson that she could go.
“I thought, ‘I need to do my part and contribute to a win,’” Wesley said. “He told me to stay ready. I stayed ready.”
With TAV hopelessly beaten late in the first set of the quarterfinals, down 19-10 to reigning champion Storm, Nicholson summoned Wesley.
“When we started to get blown out I thought, ‘I’ll put her in and see if she can get something done,’” Nicholson explained. “It looked like she was getting loose. In Set 2 I figured, ‘Let’s go with her.’”
With Wesley in the lineup, TAV led virtually start to finish in the second set and was just solid enough at the end to force a Game 3, where Wesley had several kills as TAV ran away with the win.
“That was courageous,” said Nicholson. “She really wanted to play today. It was killing her yesterday not being able to play. She’s a competitor and let her competitiveness win over the injury.”
Wesley also was a huge part of the story in the semifinal win over A5. A5 was down 13-7 early in the first set but had rallied to take the lead, 17-16, behind the serving run of a lifetime from OH Gabby Gonzales, when Gonzales tried for a fourth ace with a serve that shanked off of a TAV passer and sailed well beyond the sideline. Wesley raced to her left and dove into one of the signs surrounding the court to keep the ball up then, dragging her right leg behind her, got back to the net in time to stuff block an A5 attack! What should have been an 18-16 A5 lead and six points in a row for the Georgia squad was now a tie game at 17s. Wesley added a kill and another block as TAV scored three more points to go up 20-17 and never trailed again, neither in the first set nor in a tight second that Fitzgerald ended with a kill.
And so, at 8-4 TAV in Game 2 of the championship match, with Wesley continuing to fight through the injury and be an asset in every rotation, with McKenzie Nichols and Savannah Pate setting an efficient offense, with Hoang providing stability in the back row and with Fitzgerald, Myers and Morgan Christon scoring on virtually every swing, there seemed to be very little that Mintonette could do to get back in the match. Indeed, up until Podraza’s dump to get m.61 within a point, TAV did a nice job of keeping a two-to-three-point cushion the entire set. And when TAV responded to the one serious challenge Mintonette mounted with that run to lead 22-16, well TAV was most certainly just a minute or two away from the dogpile, a couple of Mintonette blocks notwithstanding.
Hollingshead blocked again and things got a little more interesting with Mintonette down by just three at 22-19. Wagoner followed with a scoring roll shot and things got A LOT more interesting.
Myers stopped the surge temporarily with a kill, but any late momentum TAV might have mustered was blunted by a service error. Wagoner then beat the TAV block and Mintonette was very much alive, trailing by only 23-22, just the second time since 4-3 that m.61 had cut the deficit to a single point.
Christon, who committed to Kansas a few weeks ago, connected way over the block for a kill that should have righted TAV’s ship. Not only was it a booming sign of the offensive dominance on TAV’s side of the net, it also gave the Texans two championship points.
Mintonette went to Wagoner for a swing to erase one match point against but the TAV block was there and got healthy hands on the attack. The chance was there for TAV to transition for a swing to win it, but a crowd of TAV defenders lost their talk and let the ball drop. Mintonette was down by just one once again.
TAV had a swing to win on the next point but it flew long. The set was now tied! Mintonette went ahead seconds later when a TAV player, just trying to play a third contact back over the net, buried a swing into it. The gals from Columbus had their first lead since 3-2.
“I think they got a lot tight,” said Coach Miller. “When they had the fire pit and the ball dropped and the back row didn’t commit to her swing and put the ball in the bottom of the net, all of a sudden our kids are looking around and looking at the score and saying, ‘We can do this.’
Sensing the opportunity to force a Game 3, Mintonette wasted no time making a loud statement. TAV tried to attack middle to tie but Carrigan O’Reilly was there and joined the block party. A 10-2 run to end Game 2 meant one more was needed to determine the 2017 national champion!
“I don’t know if we ran out of gas or tightened up or what,” said a chagrinned Nicholson. “Things seemed to be going our way and it seemed like the wheels fell off. We made a couple of untimely mistakes as they started making a push and it got in our head I guess.”
Game 3 started and it didn’t take long for TAV to erase the memory of the second set. Myers opened the scoring with a kill with pace, Wesley added an ace and Miller found the seam for a fast 3-0 TAV lead.
Mintonette responded with a 3-0 run of its own to tie, which included blocks from Hollingshead and Podraza and nice defense from libero Amber Beals, who was terrific all day long. Mintonette’s chances to go ahead were foiled by consecutive serving miscues. Miller took that as a sign that the Mintonette rally might yet fall short.
“I looked at our coaches and said, ‘How are we expected to win this when our two Big 10 kids are serving in the bottom of the net back to back?’” he explained.
TAV used those free points, as well as two on Christon kills and another on a Kostelecky block, to grab an 8-6 lead as the teams switched sides.
Mintonette quickly drew even, thanks to a serve and attack that both went wide of the court.
“I think their right side loved hitting that hard cross court shot,” said Miller. “Once we firmed that up with our wing and middle back doing what they were supposed to do, and what they needed to do, and TAV wasn’t able to terminate there they were going other places and that’s where they had some errors.”
Another O’Reilly block made it three in a row for Mintonette and put TAV, now down 9-8, in an unusual position in this match: playing catch up. Five times, TAV scored, earning its points on three Fitzgerald kills and a Christon kill and block, to pull even with Mintonette. Five times Mintonette answered, getting kills from Nwokolo and Margolies, two beautiful dumps from Podraza and a point when TAV’s attack at 13-13 went inches wide.
With match point staring Mintonette in the face and with the opportunity to win a first national championship for the team, for the club and for the city of Columbus, Wagoner stepped behind the service line and delivered the jump float of her life.
“Everything stopped for half a second,” said Podraza. “It felt like nothing was happening; then, all of a sudden, my team came in and crashed in on one other and that’s when it sunk in that we just won.”
Improbably, unbelievably, a Mintonette team on life support less than 15 minutes earlier was embracing not only one another but the reality that they were 16 Open national champions.
“We realized what was on the line and that Columbus Ohio has never brought home an Open national championship and how big of a deal it was for our team, our program and the city of Columbus and we wanted to bring this home not just for us but for everybody at home,” Podraza said. “We realized it was go time and we had to do something with it so we took it and ran.
“The team goal ultimately was to get on the podium; my goal was always to win a national championship.”
Asked to make sense of what just happened, TAV coach Nicholson struggled to answer.
“That’s a good question I really don’t know,” he said. “I’ve lost some tough ones. That’s a tough one.”
“I want to give our girls credit,” he added a moment later. “After that debacle in Set 2 we came back and played some competitive volleyball. We made some untimely mistakes and quite couldn’t get over the hump. I don’t know if it’s the energy thing or if they started to overthink things too much because it was right there. It definitely wasn’t over-celebration. Mintonette made some huge plays down the stretch.
“It was tough but I’m proud. The fact that the girls got themselves in that position in the first place…they did an unbelievable job. It’s gonna hurt for a while but we’re going to learn from it and be happy with the season.”
Miller also was at a loss to explain the turnaround.
“We don’t really know,” he said. “We’ll probably go back and watch the film to see what our kids did for us because as coaches we’re still trying to realize what just happened.
“Last year we walked into the Gold quarterfinals and dropped a match to LoneStar. The presence of mind wasn’t there to compete and it was very disheartening. Our kids earned the opportunity to have that back this year. It was one of those things where everything kind of fell into place.”
Note: If you are a coach or director and wanting to contribute, I seek input every Monday for these Dots and tomorrow’s Dream Team via bulk email. You can get on the email lists by subscribing (for free) at these links:
Club coaches — http://eepurl.com/hn9qgr
Club directors and administrators — http://eepurl.com/hn9kab
Until next time …