Editor’s note: What a great finish to the 2022 girls club volleyball season! There was so much information from USA Volleyball Junior Nationals in Indianapolis that this week’s Dots, John Tawa’s last of the season, is in two parts:
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. It has been my pleasure to bring you Dots every Tuesday during the 2022 club season. Look for Dots to resume in August with the start of the fall high school campaign.
• 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 USA Volleyball 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 with 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.”
If you didn’t know AZ Storm Elite 15 Thunder intimately, it wouldn’t surprise you at all that this was one of the teams playing for the 15 Open championship. After all, this team won it all as 14s a year ago, was the top seeded team in 15 Open in 2022 and the No. 1 ranked team in the country with just three losses in its age group all year.
Storm coach Jami Rolfes knew differently. She knew that making it to the championship match with a 10-0 record was a remarkable achievement.
Storm, you see, had no idea one week before Junior Nationals, where it would have a setter healthy enough to play.
Avery Lim, the team’s setter all year and the architect of its fantastic season, suffered an ankle sprain at the JVA West Coast Cup late in May and was in a boot for almost three weeks. She was released to fully practice the day before Storm left for Junior Nationals and sprained her wrist at that practice.
Kaia Pixler, who set for this team all last season, had not played in a multi-day tournament since July, 2021, due to major surgery at the beginning of the year. After finally being released to play she suffered a major concussion in one of her first tournaments back.
“She had three weeks of practice that she participated in, but not even in full capacity,” Rolfes explained. “So a four-day event for her after not playing or even training I knew was going to be difficult. Long story short, I had no idea if I was going to have a setter capable of playing four days at the biggest event of the year.”
Storm’s first match of the tournament, against 24th-seeded AJV, should have been no problem for the top seeds. Instead, Storm lost the first set and was taken to the brink in the third before winning, 17-15.
“I think getting through that first match was a key moment,” Rolfes said. “I ended up going with Kaia Pixler as my setter. We came out a little ‘out of sorts’ trying to find some chemistry. Again, this was her first time playing with this group basically all season. I gave Avery an early opportunity but her wrist was hurting too badly to have her continue. We came back down 14-12 in Game 3 and won! That was a ‘Welcome to Nationals’ moment! We knew nothing was going to be easy.”
Storm settled down after that and swept its next three matches to clinch advancement. The reigning age group champs went 2-0 in its Day 3 pool, including a tight (15-13) win over 1st Alliance; then rallied from a set down to oust Northern Lights in its Challenge match. Gold Bracket sweeps of OT and TAV followed to get the Arizona squad to the championship match still unbeaten.
“Well, making it to the finals back to back is pretty remarkable,” Rolfs said. “It was a battle getting there and I thought my girls stepped up and had an amazing tournament. We knew if we could win the serve and pass game and played with the mentality that we could touch any ball that came over the net we would be successful. We had some incredible come back wins and played with a lot of grit!”
Storm finished one win from repeating as national champions.
“We came up just short in the end but I do have to give kudos to Alamo,” Rolfes said. “That group of girls came out on fire and did everything right. They played amazing and earned it!”
OH Teraya Sigler led the way in defeat for Storm.
“She is the total package!” Rolfes exclaimed. “Offensively she led the team in kills all week. Defensively she made some incredible hustle plays! She was steady in her serve receive game the entire tournament. When the game’s on the line, she loves the pressure and wants the ball. She’s a special athlete!”
Storm’s middles also were impact players. Makenna Rumple had a big tournament, providing the energy that this team needed. She came through in big moments blocking balls and putting balls away and had amazing serving runs. Unfortunately, she sprained her ankle during the semifinals, which impacted her mobility. Kiana Landers came in during the finals and played great alongside MB Kenna Cogill, a big presence at the net who was steady all tournament long.
Libero Izzy Mahaffey was a standout in the back row.
“She was all over the court defensively,” Rolfes said. “She doesn’t give up on balls. She’s a player that does a great job under pressure as well! She made some incredible defensive plays and passed well especially when the game was on the line.”
Pixler made it through all four days.
“That itself was incredible,” Rolfes said. “I was proud of her for being able to make her big debut at Nationals! I know she was exhausted but she did it!”
TAV and Drive Nation, two Dallas-area clubs, tied for third. TAV, one of the two teams to defeat Alamo over the four days, also defeated Drive Nation during pool play, but fell to AZ Storm in the semis.
TAV coach Arthur Stanfield said that it was nice to medal with seven players from last year’s 14 Open runner-up team. Six-rotation players Audrey Jackson and Sydnee Peterson were both outstanding and setter Sarah Pfiffner did a great job of running the team.
Drive Nation was swept three times in its first pool, but managed to emerge from it in fourth place. Jacob Hanan’s team then surged to the Gold Bracket, where it won in revenge over Houston Skyline in the quarterfinals before losing a three-set tussle with Alamo in the semis.
Drive Nation came to Junior Nationals down two players who quit after the qualifier season and with a new offensive system. Starting 1-3, it would have been easy to just give up. Hanan’s squad switched back to running a 5-1 with two middles and avoided elimination outright by outlasting HPSTL 15 Royal, 27-25, 26-28, 16-14, in its last pool match and advanced because of that head-to-head win, despite having the lowest set percentage and point percentage of the three teams that went 2-3.
“My girls were crying with relief,” Hanan said. “I think at one moment my setter ran into my middle’s arms and said with excitement and relief, ‘WE’RE IN!!!’ I mean, I can’t make this stuff up.
“In that huddle we said, ‘We are out of luck, so from here on out you have to play your best, most disciplined volleyball ever. After that we went 3-2 and won the right ones. Our only loses from that moment on were to TAV (who medaled) and Alamo (who won the whole damn thing). 5-5 in matches and 11-13 in sets and we go on to medal in 15 Open, taking 3rd? Exceeded expectations is an understatement. What we did was unreal!!!”
MB Kierstyn Carlton was a standout start to finish and came up with big plays when the team needed them most. Libero Sara Mendoza was a defensive spark, a serve-receive machine taking half the court and the team’s ace leader for the tournament and on the season.
Setter Hannah Beauford was outstanding.
“We would not have done what we did if we did not have her,” Hanan said. “Her poise and competitive drive are huge. She had to run everywhere and do everything for us and sometimes I would watch and say to myself, ‘Only Hannah can make that set; no one else.’”
Finally, OH Lauren Mack was legendary the last two days.
“When Lauren turned it up, our team turned it up,” Hanan explained. “She would get big swing after big swing and pass and defend and serve; I mean the kid couldn’t mess up. I talked about how Open players have another gear in big matches and in the biggest tournament. Lauren Mack had it and then some.”
OT Randy tied for fifth at Junior Nationals just eight days after placing second in 15 Open at AAU Nationals. That’s a lot of success in a very short period of time. Congrats OT!
Head coach Randy Thomas emailed before Junior Nationals to tell me about his team’s effort in Orlando. He said that the team found ways to win, even after standout libero Lily Hayes was injured in the semifinals. Aaliyah Harlow stepped in and the she and the team continued to function at a high level. Others who stood out included OH Maggie Dostic, RS/S Josie Hensley and S Izzy Mogridge.
• Rockwood Thunder 15 Elite overcame a Day 1 loss to Flyers 15-APX Ed to win 15 National as the No. 5 overall seed. The St. Louis club, which rallied from a set down to defeat FC Elite 15 Navy in the final, sent out longtime coaches Chris Reid and James Zacharewicz as national championship winners.
In April, the coaches announced that this would be their last year after 18 years coaching together between St. Louis CYC and Rockwood. The team made efforts to qualify in Open at Show Me, NEQ and MEQ, but never seriously contended. So the team set out to medal in the National division.
“We felt like we could reach the podium if we played our best volleyball,” said Reid, the team’s head coach. “This group worked very hard to improve every time out this season, and the last two months of the season made big improvement leaps with every event.”
The goal to make the podium and reality collided on Day 1.
“We could not get into a flow all day, and a tough Flyers team played a great match and beat us in two,” Reid said.
The team played better starting with the second day, as the serve-pass game became more consistent. Rockwood continued to fire on all cylinders and were able to bring a strong first contact attack to bear in Gold Bracket wins that propelled the team to the championship match.
FC Elite took the first set of the final, thanks to exceptional defense.
“We just could not find the floor,” Reid said. “They kept us out of system with their tough serving, and were hitting us with a well-balanced attack.”
Better passing and serving helped Rockwood take a tight Game 2, sending the match to a tiebreaking set for the Gold Ball.
Before the third set began, Rockwood Thunder 15 Navy came down from the stands to support 15 Elite courtside.
“There is no doubt that their dancing to the Cupid Shuffle before Set 3 helped relax us before the deciding set (and may have sparked a little dancing in our huddle as well),” Reid said.
“We talked all season about maintaining an attacking mindset and applying that attacking mindset to each skill,” Reid explained. “And the players absolutely applied that in Set 3. Our servers were tough, and our passers attacked FCE’s serves with decisive feet and calm platforms. We were very consistent in the third set and were fortunately able to come out with the win.”
Reid said that Rockwood was able to prevail despite the strong play of physical middle Campbell Onell and the range and power of OH Teegan Charapata.
For Rockwood, OH Reagan Nelson had a terrific tournament.
“She is an exceptionally consistent, high-scoring attacker who hits with range and mixes in a very effective off-speed shot with her high-octane blasts,” Reid said. “Reagan also passes every rotation, including three rotations where we passed two with her and libero Mandy Lawson. Reagan was often targeted in those rotations as the non-libero, but she handled the pressure with a very steady platform.”
OH Jenna Cubbage hit a heavy ball all week and led the team in serving, as the shift to a jump float serve a third of the way into the season paid off. Setter Brytn Lyon’s strength and length was a big factor in Rockwood staying in system with less than perfect passes.
“Her ability to get balls out to Reagan and Jenna at the left pin rather than settle for a back row down ball led to a lot of points for us,” said Reid.
The defense of libero Lawson and DS Avery Helms helped boost the team.
“We always talk about how the purpose of defense is just to get one more swing, and they absolutely propelled our transition offense,” Reid explained.
“Setter Maddy Bach and RS Abby Chall developed a special connection this season and certainly brought that to Nationals, teaming up on some big kills,” Reid continued. “Their combination enabled us to side out in rotations 4, 5 and 6 at the same percentage as 1, 2 and 3, which was huge. MBs Mackie Mueller and Kira Dufner controlled the net well for us and provided consistent offense, especially on the slide attack. RS Danielle Moore worked hard to improve her blocking over the past month, and it paid off as she put up a strong block against the opponent’s primary outside and had some key kills. OH Ellie Witthaus was out for most of the season with a back injury, and just ran out of time before Nationals in her recovery to get back to her best. But her energy and support for her teammates was incredible – she was simply a perfect model of how to handle a difficult situation with a team-first attitude.”
“Finishing out a career with a national championship is just a dream come true and a storybook ending,” Reid finished. “I will never be able to adequately thank this team for what an incredible gift that was. I am immensely proud of each of them.”
Reid said that he’ll still be involved at Rockwood, just not coaching a team.
Reid will definitely be missed on the sidelines. In my 20+ years writing about the club scene, there are few coaches as kind and gracious as Reid. He and “Zach” got the most out of their teams and always made the experience worthwhile.
“There’s no question that there is a lot about coaching club volleyball that I will miss – but most of all it will be the relationships with players, their families, coaches and officials that I’ve enjoyed over the years,” Reid said. “That’s what matters the most.”
• Adrenaline 15 Doug, an Iowa club, won 15 USA. The team lost a tight one to TAV 15 Blue in its opening pool, then rattled off eight wins in a row to capture first place. Adrenaline won three-set matches in the quarterfinal versus OP2 15-1 and in the semifinal versus A5 Mizuno 15-Victory before winning impressively, 25-17, 25-17, in the championship match versus Jacksonville Skyline 15 Royal.
Adrenaline came to Indy knowing that it could compete with teams in its division; the question for head coach Doug Palmer was whether the team could finish late in big tournaments.
“We focused every effort on Nationals and the mental side of the game,” Palmer said. “No plays off. Constant and consistent discipline.”
As the tournament wore on, Adrenaline’s Gold Bracket expectations and winning a medal shifted.
“Winning became more of a reality the closer we got,” Palmer said. “I kept telling them, ‘You can win this tournament if you work hard and you’re disciplined every play.’ They really bought in.”
Adrenaline’s determination continued a trend that Palmer saw with his team in the two months preparing for Junior Nationals.
“Sometimes when teams receive their bid a load of stress is off their shoulders,” he said. “Lack of intensity and urgency sometimes emerge. That never happened with this team. We (including myself and our coaches) never let up. It was always a sense of urgency in practice. Their commitment level increased the deeper in the season we went. We added tournaments in May and June that we don’t usually play in. We played up an age group for the size and speed we would see. Players who were playing multiple sports for school rearranged schedules to make it work.”
Adrenaline used those months to speed up their tempo. Pins Chloe Meester, Libby Fandel and Sydney Maue executed that speed and opposing teams struggled to adjust.
In Indianapolis, Adrenaline used the early loss to TAV to remind them of the need to stay disciplined and focused. A sweep of KC Power 15-1, a team it lost to at Show Me in the first round of Gold, gave the team confidence it never relinquished. And a blocking exhibition by Maue on the right side versus AP 15 Adidas, the original No. 1 seed, helped Adrenaline sweep to the Gold Bracket.
Asked who Adrenaline’s standouts were, Palmer said: “It’s very hard not to recognize everyone because it was such a team effort.
Pressed, he said that Meester, Adrenaline’s 6-3 OH, was unstoppable for four days. A three-rotation middle last year, she owned the pin with her terminal swings.
Fandel also terminated with great consistency, using her speed and competitive edge to great effect.
“She provides so much spark and leadership that we couldn’t have done it without her,” Palmer said.
Setter Sydney Huber also shined.
“She has such a calm demeanor in the most stressful situations and continues to work through fatigue and injury without a hitch,” said Palmer. “Sydney was our most improved player this year. As a 14, she never jump set or ran much tempo. I have been quite demanding on her this year, knowing that we needed her to improve the most. Learning a much faster and more complex offense was quite the challenge but she worked extra days and nights to improve. She shined at Nationals in my opinion, which was her best tournament of the season.”
Mintonette m.51, an Ohio squad, put together a truly dominating performance to win the 64-team 15 American division. Stephanie Grieshop’s team set the tone by going 7-0 (14-0) in its first pool. Mintonette didn’t run into trouble until the first round of the Gold Bracket, where fellow OVR team ECJ 15-1 extended the match to three sets. The final, versus AVA Texas 15 Adidas, also was a competitive three-set affair that m.51 won, 15-11 in the third, to complete an 11-0 run through Indy.
“We went in with intention to podium/medal with a bonus expectation to win,” Grieshop said. “We played Open all year and just missed out. We know other clubs had a similar experience and we expected to see them on Day 4 in Gold as well. We knew if we played our best, we could have a good shot at the title, but it wouldn’t come easy.”
Grieshop said the team needed to overcome some mental hurdles to make the final. Eastside Cleveland had beaten them before. That was a big hurdle.
“Once we beat them in the third set, I felt confident we had the strength to finish strong,” she said.
In the semifinals against Boomers 15 Mizuno team that had yet to lose, m.51 served strong and made few errors to sweep a team with the weapons to beat it. That sent Mintonette to the finals against AVA of Texas, the team it expected to see in the championship match.
“We’re not shocked it went to three sets,” Grieshop said. “We knew it would be a great match.”
Grieshop said that it took all 11 players on her roster to reach the top of the podium.
“We really had everyone contribute all week,” she said. “It wasn’t a one-or-two-person show.”
OH Presley Stokes was named MVP. She was the team’s most consistent terminator and her passing really stood out. Fellow outside Teagan Ng was also a huge point scorer at the net with her diverse shot selection. MB Taylor Bahnub stood out offensively and defensively. She got a ton of touches on balls, creating relatively easy digs to target, and her transition from block to the quick attack was stopped very few times. Bahnub was also a consistent tough server, holding serve for an average of 2 serves per turn. Setter Larsen Terrill and libero Keira Steininger also executed their roles to perfection and were rewarded with All-Tournament recognition.
Other winners included A5 Mizuno 15-Pat in 15 Liberty, Texas Fury 15 Legacy, which fashioned an 11-0 mark in winning 15 Freedom; and Colorado Juniors 15 Jen, which captured the 15 Patriot division.
Dots continues with Part 2 — the 16s and 17s — on Wednesday.