Tawa’s Daily Dots: 20 teams clinch Sunshine bids, A5-Marc has it all go wrong but still bids, and who was down 10-2 in the third and still won?

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Tawa's Daily Dots 3/17/2021-Houston Skyline volleyball
Houston Skyline celebrates

Daily Dots (March 17, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)

• Well over 500 teams invaded Orlando last weekend for the Sunshine Volleyball Classic. They were greeted with 80-degree days and 50-degree nights…perfect. There was one non-bid tournament, the 18s, won by JJVA 18N Daniel, which we told you about on Monday. That leaves eight bid tournaments to recap. Let’s get into it!

Madfrog 17 Green

• Let’s start our journey in 17 Open, where Houston Skyline 17 Royal, Madfrog 17 Green and Metro 17 Travel all punched tickets to the Dance.

Metro 17 Travel

Ranked third nationally by VolleyballMag.com, Houston Skyline was seeded second behind Madfrog in the 40-team 17 Open field. Jen Woods’ squad is one of three that played in the Northern Lights Qualifier in Omaha at the end of January and the highest finisher, at T-5 with an 8-1 record. The lone loss, to Northern Lights 17-1, generated a three-way tie for first where only the top two finishers went on to the semifinals. Houston Skyline was third in the tiebreaking analysis by virtue of needing three sets to defeat Premier Nebraska.

“Our expectations going into this weekend were to qualify and, once that was accomplished, to focus on winning the tournament,” Woods said. “With our team’s experience in Omaha, we were fully aware that sometimes it can take a near flawless tournament to reach your goals. We had to focus on being sharp the entire tournament, start to finish.”

Motivated by what happened in Omaha, Houston Skyline played near flawless volleyball for the first two days. The team then faced a roadblock: Houston Skyline 17 Black. Woods expected her club’s very strong team to make it to Gold; it just so happened that both teams ended up in the same pool and playing one another right off the bat.

“17 Black played great and had our backs against the wall,” Woods said. “They won the first set, 25-20, and they were up, 20-17, in the second set. Thankfully we were able to work our way out of that situation, winning the second set, 25-23, and then taking the third, 15-10. Working through this adversity was a huge spark to finish out the day strong.”

17 Black ended up being the only team to extend Houston Skyline beyond two sets all tourney long. Woods’ team beat my pick to win it all, OT Roberto, to close out the pool, then knocked off national No. 2 A5 Jing in the semifinals and Metro in the championship match, 25-18, 25-22.

“We are pleased with how our team prepared between Northern Lights and Sunshine,” Woods said. “We approached every practice with the detailed mindset that how we prepared ourselves in the training setting would show up at Sunshine. Going 10-0 in matches (20-1 in sets) at Sunshine reflected the impact of this preparation.”

Woods was loath to single any player out for exceptional play, noting that, “One of the aspects that makes this team special and truly next-level is the balance of talent across various positions. They truly all had their moments that they stepped up to carry the load when someone may have been a little off their norm.”

Woods did say that Maddie Waak was her usual strong self at the setter position and that the passing and defense of Alexis Dacosta and Ava Underwood gave hitters like Morgan Perkins, Kierstyn McFall, Logan Lednicky and Brielle Warren consistent opportunities to show off their vast volleyball repertoires.

Unranked Metro let the sun shine in with a second-place finish. Coming off of a strong MAPL showing two weeks earlier, Metro won nine straight matches, including a come-from-behind win to topple national No. 8 Madfrog in the semis.

“Going into Sunshine we expected some good competition and, in order to get a bid, we were going to have to earn it,” coach Corey Hobson noted. “Being early in the year and our first qualifier, our expectation was to compete and see where we stand compared to other teams in the nation. I believe we played a well-rounded tournament as a whole by staying consistent, using all our weapons, and battling in some tough matches. Now that we have met one of our team goals, it is time to get back to work and go get another.”

You wouldn’t have known that Madfrog was down two right side attackers the way the team played the first two days. Six matches produced six sweeps, albeit with some scary close sets thrown in. Still, the team was undefeated after escaping Academy Diamond (17-15 in the third) and sweeping Dynasty on Sunday morning and headed into the semifinals knowing it needed to win only one of two matches to earn a bid.

Madfrog battled in the semis, but fell to Metro.

Said coach Shelly Tucker: “This sparked the fire to not let the next match slip away as it was to earn our bid to Nationals, the very thing we came for!”

Madfrog earned its bid with a close sweep of A5, an amazing achievement in light of the injuries. Tucker lauded the play of Tayah Little, who led vocally and physically despite being shuttled from middle to the right all weekend long. Tucker also praised undersized but athletic six-rotation outside Maya Duckworth for her leadership and skill in all six rotations, as well as one of the team’s liberos, Zoria Heard, who stepped up in big moments and was instrumental in keeping rallies alive by digging hard-driven balls with ease. 

a5 Kelly

• In the 64-team 17 USA division, three teams finished with identical 9-1 records. All three came away with USA bids.

A5 Mizuno 17-Kelly’s loss came on the first day, to AVA of Texas. The team not only didn’t lose again; it didn’t drop so much as one set. A5 took down Rockwood Thunder 17 Navy in the semifinals and Texas Pistols 17 Black, 25-23, 25-15, for the title.

Head coach Kelly Audia said that his team was pretty beat up heading into the tournament. The team had played mostly 18s tournaments so far, which accounted for its low seed (32), but the team understood that it had yet to peak.

“We were looking at [Sunshine] as a chance to build momentum going into bid season,” Audia explained.

Instead, the team went out and won the whole dang thing.

“With so many injuries affecting our lineups, we were extremely happy to gut it out and win it.” Audia understated.

Morgan Cobb, Lura Underwood and Taylor Nelson all played like rock stars given the afflictions, maladies and ailments they were dealing with (Note: I actually have no idea the precise nature of the owies and boo boos, but give all props when players shine while at less than 100%).

Audia said the title may never have materialized but for a key effort the first match of Day 2. After losing to AVA to close out Friday’s first pool, A5 was down 18-13 late in Game 1 the next morning versus Team KIWI 17 Spencer.

“We made a massive comeback run in Game 1 and then carried that momentum to beat [Team KIWI] and the overall #2 seed, Siesta Key, to put is in a position for the run on Sunday,” Audia said.

Texas Pistols did not respond to our request for input, but the team was undefeated heading to the finals. The team had a key win in the Gold quarterfinals against the same AVA of Texas team that have A5 so much trouble, then dominated Tallahassee Juniors 17 Nike Pro to earn its bid.

Tallahassee Juniors

If TJVC was shaken after its only loss of the tournament, in two to Texas Pistols, denied it a spot in the finals, it didn’t show it. Angie Strickland’s team earned its bid by sweeping Rockwood Thunder Navy in the third-place match.

“Back in December, the girls wrote on their vision board to qualify as their number 1 priority,” Strickland explained. “Our goal for the Sunshine Classic was top three because there were only three bids and it was our first bid opportunity! We matched those expectations perfectly.”

The team won despite losing starting libero Amanda Ray to a fractured foot on Wednesday night. (Ray had emergency surgery on Friday night and was an extra coach on the sideline for the weekend, helping her teammates to the bid!)

The key moment, Strickland said, came in the first round of the Gold bracket, to 850 Elite, a team TJVC had lost to at Lil Big South earlier in the season. Tallahassee lost the first set and needed a Game 2 comeback before dominating the third to advance. Setter Alexa Washington, hitter Cailin Demps and libero Saniaa Dickey all played heroically for Tallahassee Juniors in that match and all weekend long.

Power 17 Elite, a club out of Lake Helen, Florida (near DeLand), went 10-0 to win the lone bid in the 72-team 17 American division. In Monday’s Dots, I mistakenly referred to the team as “Ocala Power.” Ocala is 67 miles west northwest of Lake Helen. This may account for why I received no response to my request for input sent to the leadership at Ocala Power.

Anyway, what I do know is that Power took down top-seeded Venetian Bay in the semifinals before overcoming Miami Volleyball Academy 17 Pedro for the title.

[Power, if you’re reading this, hit me up – jtawa@volleyballmag,com – as I’ve got a future Dot reserved for you.

• Speaking of future Dots, may I have permission to speak frankly?

It has been an absolute blast these past seven weeks being with VolleyballMag.com and writing about and promoting club volleyball and its hard-working players. I hope to continue doing so into April and beyond but need your help.

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They didn’t count on me, however. So …

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Legacy 16 Adidas

• Turning to the 16 Open division, we picked national No. 2 Legacy 16-1 Adidas to both win and dominate the 31-team field. Coached by Jen and Ricky Cottrill, the team did win it all, but there were moments of peril. After looking like the best team in the country on Day 1, Legacy was pressed on Saturday by both Metro 16 Travel and Tribe 16 Elite Brett before prevailing.

Those three-set wins imperiled Legacy going into its final Day 2 pool play match versus 1-1 Excel 16 National Red. A loss would create a three-way tie and, with two three-set victories, Legacy most certainly would have been the odd team out in the tiebreaking analysis.

“Part of our challenge this year is dealing with the pressure that our players have naturally been feeling,” said Jen Cottrill, whose team has lost just one match in almost two years. “On Day 2, after our second match, we took the team up into the lobby and had a great conversation about dealing with the pressure, how to stay relaxed, play in the moment and have fun. Our girls really embraced our conversation and one of our players, DS Allison Berent, took control and came up with some ideas for keeping us relaxed and having fun.”

Legacy defeated Excel, 25-16, 25-16, then swept its way to the championship match, where it overcame a Game 1 loss to A5 16-Gabe to win in three and take the title.

“Our expectations were to win,” Cottrill said. “We have been working hard since our loss at President’s Day to improve on some weaknesses we observed and felt really happy with our progress going into this weekend. We were really happy with our team’s execution of the things we have been working on. Some of them were mental challenges and others were physical challenges.”

On the court, the team benefited by Erin Kline’s fast and balanced offense and the terminating ability of outsides Harper Murray and Nina Horning.

Bluegrass champion A5 16-Gabe had a chance to add another big trophy to its case after playing a virtual Who’s Who to get to the championship match. A5’s path to the championship match included sweeps, in succession, over HJV 16 Elite, No Name 16 Sarah, Metro 16 Travel and High Tide 16 Elite.

Houston Juniors 16 Elite

Head coach Gabe Aramian knew that his team, ranked fifth nationally, was in the mix to qualify but he worried that his team might not have enough in the tank after a gut-wrenching effort at Bluegrass just one weekend earlier.

“I knew the challenges we faced were not small,” he said, ticking off four of them:

*Very tough competition in what used to be known as an ‘easy qualifier;’
*Having to beat tough teams every day of the event, like mis-seeded Tribe on the first day;
*The daunting task of qualifying early in the season when no one else is qualified; and
*Overcoming the physicality of some of the top teams in the competition, including Legacy, HJV, High Tide, No Name and Metro.

Aramian said the key moment for his team was defeating High Tide the last match of Sunday’s Gold pool to avoid a three-way 2-1 tie.

“We knew to qualify and have chance to play for the Gold that we needed to win the pool,” Aramian said, “and standing in the way was a very physical and consistent High Tide team that was new to us.  After much scouting and psychological rallying, we went into the match with guns blazing and it was then that I knew my team was on a path of no return.”

Aramian praised OH Ashley Sturzoiu, who was virtually unstoppable in the finals and helped A5 take a 6-2 Game 3 lead before Legacy rallied to the win. Also stepping up were setters Taylor Pecht and Katie Boney, along with right sides Jaidyn Garcia and Sydney Bray.

Houston Juniors 16 Elite was seeded eighth to start in a field that boasted two top-five national teams in Legacy and A5. Head coach Tara Cross-Battle knew HJV would need to well to earn a bid.

“My expectations going into the weekend was to make it to Day 3 to have a shot of earning a bid,” the former collegiate and Olympic superstar said. “I felt if we improved on our side of the net each match we would get that opportunity to finish top 3 and earn a bid.”

The qualification-sparking moment came in the first Gold pool play match versus OT Will.

“We started off very shaky in the first set,” Cross-Battle explained. “I had to make a huge change by switching out my liberos and switching out one of my starting middle blockers. It truly was a team effort to be victorious over a talented team. Every player on my team contributed to the victory.”

Beating OT Will and Chapel Hill Area (which made noise on Day 1 by sweeping No Name) put HJV into the third-place match versus No Name for the final bid. The Texas side won convincingly.

“It is difficult to say who stepped up as my team played well throughout the tournament, especially Day 2 and 3,” Cross-Battle explained. “We really did improve our play each day.

“The most inspiring player would have to be my OH/RS player, Cindy Tchouangwa. Cindy dislocated her thumb on her left hand at the Tour of Texas Pre-Qualified round January 17th. This is her first major injury she has ever experienced. She had to sit out of practice for the next two weeks and had to ease her way back onto the court. Since it was her left hand, she was still able to contribute to her team. The only thing she couldn’t do is block with both hands. So, she blocked with only her right hand. Cindy had approximately 15 blocks in the tournament including 4-5 solo blocks.”

A5 Marc

• There were 72 teams playing 16 USA on the weekend in Orlando. Three earned bids: Gainesville Juniors 16 Elite went 10-0 to win the title; A5 16-Marc took second; and San Antonio Juniors 16 Adidas, a first-year club, copped the bronze.

Our efforts to get reports from Gainesville and SA Juniors went begging, but the invitation is open for them to share their qualification stories with us so that we can share them with you in a future Dots column.

We did hear from Marc Jones at A5. Jones does wonders with second teams, even got one (or two?) to qualify in Open one year, so it’s no surprise that one week after a T-5 in 16 Premier at Bluegrass, he was sending his team to Vegas with a 16 USA bid from Sunshine.

Jones said that traveling home from Bluegrass, he had good expectations of a strong showing in Orlando. But arriving back home in Atlanta, he learned that one of his setters would miss the tournament due to a death in the family. Another player, a middle, also was going to miss. Yet another player, another middle, suffered from a stomach ailment early in the week before Sunshine that put her participation in jeopardy. In other words, qualifying went from expected to dubious to a blessing.

That was especially true after MB Sydney Austin suffered an ankle injury in the first game of the second match in Orlando. Evie Ziffer came off the bench and did a great job filling in for the rest of the weekend, but Jones knew that his team could not lose another middle already down two of the four.

On Day 2, more adversity hit. Six-rotation OH Sara Seifert went down with a calf injury, which left the team with only two outsides.

“We moved Reece Rhoads into that spot and she did a solid job playing all six rotations, which was the first time for her,” Jones said. “Ella Beyer came in off the bench and did a good job filling the other outside position.”

After surviving the first two days, Jones came to believe this was a team of destiny.

“I felt going into Day 3 that we had an honest chance of being in the finals with what this team overcame the first two days,” he said. “When we won our first match on Day 3in 3…they battled hard for every point and played with a different type of drive that I had never seen from them before. After that match is when I truly felt we were destined to make the finals. They did it two more times in the quarters and semis to win each of those matches in 3 sets as well.”

Jones said that every player on the team competed like a champion and contributed. Libero Allie Otto’s defense, Maddie Burroughs’ defense and the offense orchestrated by setter Quincy Morin were especially instrumental in all of those close matches.

305 VBC 16 National Elite went 10-0 to win the 140-team 16 American division and earn the lone bid. The team dropped one set early in the tournament but no other and swept fellow Dade County denizen Miami Hype in the championship match.

Again, no report was received from 305, despite requests. I grew up in Miami, so space is most definitely reserved anytime you want a shot at that Dot…

Madfrog 15 Green

• National No. 5 Madfrog 15 Green defeated national No. 1 A5 15-Bob to win the 29-team 15 Open division in Orlando. The Frogs qualified by sweeping nine of their 10 opponents, including the last seven, and defeated the other two qualifiers, A5 and OTVA 15 T Randy, by identical 25-23, 25-22 scores.

OTVA Randy

Head coach Nicky Bramschreiber said she expected her team to compete well enough to secure a bid, but expectations often diverge from reality over a long three-day event.

“Qualifiers are about mental endurance,” she said. “Everyone is tired on Day 3 physically, so the team that is able to stay disciplined and execute through the fatigue is usually the victor.”

Madfrog’s toughest match came on Sunday to open Gold pool play versus Dallas Skyline 15 Royal. The Frogs won the match handily and overcame a tough mental hurdle in the process: defeating a quality team from your own region that you play often.

Madfrog won because everyone who stepped onto the court got the job done at a high level. The team passed at a 2.15 level, anchored by Avery Baughman and Tally Grissom, setters Cate Hatfield and Carson Eickenloff controlled the offense. The front line of Lainee Pyles, Lillian Croshaw and Akunna Cos-Okpalla put up a strong defense and attracted so much attention offensively that it opened up lanes for outsides Avery Jackson and Regan Fitzsimmons to dominate.

A5 was impressive in rolling to a bid. The nation’s top-ranked team shook off an uneven effort at Bluegrass the weekend before to dominate for nine matches. Other than Madfrog, only Triangle 15 Black (25-22, 27-25) really gave Bob Westbrook’s team a match. In the other 16 sets, teams scored more than 20 points against A5 precisely once. I’d love to tell you more but…again, here’s Dotting at you, A5.

Hear this: the OTVA team that qualified third on Sunday was a high-level USA team a year ago before the shutdown. But five new players, maturity, skill development and a ton of fire can turn that kind of team into one that is feared at the Open level!

OTVA lost just three sets all weekend, one to national No. 22 Metro 16 Travel in Gold pool play and the two to Madfrog in the semifinals.

“My expectations for my team this weekend was to compete with every team we faced,” coach Randy Thomas said. “We exceeded our expectations and managed to get third place and an Open bid.  I’m very happy for how hard this team fought all weekend against great competition. We aren’t the tallest or strongest team, but we never gave up.”

Success in two key moments drove OT to the bid. The first came against Metro, where the Tampa team won 17-15 in the third.

“If we didn’t win that match we knew we would have to beat both Skyline and Madfrog [to make the semifinals],” Thomas said.

The second key moment was the third-place match itself for the final bid. It came against OTVA 15 O Isaac, which beat it previously this season.

“Everyone played outstanding all weekend,” Thomas said. “Bella Lee, libero, consistently made big digs and great passes. Taylor Parks, setter, did an amazing job running the offense and giving our attackers opportunities to take big swings. Hannah Hankerson, outside, and Bailey Higgins, right side, had a lot of kills and consistently put points up. Maria Happ, middle, was a blocking force. Michaela Clayton, outside, played consistently in both the front row and back row.”

USA South celebrates

• We close our too long coverage of the Sunshine Volleyball Classic with the 72-team strong 15 USA division, which left no team undefeated. Florida teams, MPV 15’s Max and USA South 15 Premier Purple, took the first two spots, with San Antonio Juniors defeating A5 15-Victor in three sets for the bronze and final bid.

MPV came in as the fifth overall seed and overcame a Day 2 loss to BVA 15 Black Fernanda, 16-14 in the third, to capture the Gold medal.

MPV 15

Head coach Ashley Laborde said that the goal for the weekend was to give perfect effort on the court. Playing perfectly is impossible, so she likes to focus on the effort.

“Every team sets a goal to win and to qualify, but we like to focus on the details that make it possible,” she explained. “Teams with the most fight and discipline have proven to come out on top.”

The team’s run to the top of the standings included another dogfight with BVA, which MPV won, 15-12 in the third; followed by sweeps of SA Juniors and USA South in the semifinals and finals.

“After a loss to BVA on Day 2, our girls were determined to not let it happen again,” LaBorde explained. “So, when we faced them again in the quarterfinals, they showed up hungry for the win and that hunger carried over into every match on Sunday.”

“Our girls exceeded our expectations tremendously,” LaBorde added. “We have never been the biggest team, but without a doubt our team played with the most heart this weekend and left it all on the court. As coaches that is all we can ask for.”

Though the team was sparked by the tremendous defense of libero Mckenna Yates and having three hitters across the net, Kiana LaBorde, Aariana “Rose” Gravel and Elayna “Lou” Johnson, all hit above .300, LaBorde stressed that the weekend “was the best display of team effort I have ever seen. Every girl stepped it up at the service line with aggressive serves and minimal errors.”

USA South, which finished second, inspired its coaches with the mental toughness and grit displayed on the third day, when it was fighting for a bid. Twenty-one hours after suffering a loss at the hands of Xcel Volleyball 151 (15-10 in the third), USA South was matched up against the Lone Star Region team again in the quarterfinals. USA South trailed 10-2 in the third set, yet found a way, unbelievably, to take the win. 

OHs Kendra Pruitt, Addison Piatt, and Zara Stewart really stepped up when the team needed it most, program director Charlie Castillo said.

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