Daily Dots (March 24, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)
• Continuing our Crossroads 18s coverage from yesterday, 31 teams made the trek to Windsor, in Northern Colorado, to test themselves in the 18 USA division. Texas Image 18 Asics Black survived losses on the first two days to advance, then caught fire on Sunday and won three matches in straight sets to claim the crown and the bid.
Forza1 Volleyball North 18UA and homestanding NORCO 18 Black both tied for third to take home the other two bids.
Image coach Andy Sullivan said that his squad came to Crossroads trying to finish at least third.
“We wound up getting first.”
Before the first match, he told his team, “We only have a few opportunities to qualify, so let’s get it now and take the stress off.”
The stress may be off now, but it was on over the entire length of the three-day tournament. Seeded third overall to start, a day 1 loss to Ballistic VBC 18 Black dropped Image to the last seed of the advancers and into a pool with Mizuno Northern Lights 18-2, which had already qualified and was the No. 1 overall seed. Sullivan’s team lost that match in two, but swept their other two opponents to make the final eight.
Sullivan said that Sunday’s Gold Bracket quarterfinal versus then-undefeated Shockwave Adidas 18 Scott was the turning point of the tournament. When his team survived that nail biter, 26-24, 25-23,it gave them confidence to overcome Forza1 in the semis and a revenge match with Northern Lights 18-2 for the title.
Libero Kate Morgan and setter Caroline Dykes were catalysts all weekend long.
Lights, which qualified third at the Northern Lights National Qualifier in Omaha in late January, was 8-0 and rolling, with no dropped sets, when it took the court for the final against an Image team that was one of its victims on day 2.
“Right from the start of day 1, things were just clicking,” Lights’ coach Steph Kaczmarek said. “They were able to maintain that through day 3. The energy on the court was better than it had ever been. We embraced an ‘attack’ mindset from the net and the service line, and were able to stay in control the majority of the time. The girls were playing well, and they were playing together.”
Texas Image did outperform Northern Lights in the championship match, but Kaczmarek was proud of her crew. They defended the top seed well, played with confidence and built on their successes from earlier in the year.
Each one of our players contributed to our success,” Kaczmarek said. “Our hitters were swinging aggressively; our setters were making smart choices; and our back row players made some great defensive plays. Everyone did their job!”
“We made it into the top three of the Northern Lights Qualifier (third place), and now Colorado Crossroads (second place) — two very competitive tournaments,” Kaczmarek added. We are proud to have earned a bid not only once, but twice! Now, we just continue to work.”
Forza1 North started Crossroads with five straight sweeps before dropping the first set of Saturday’s pool play finale to Ballistic, which was desperate to win to force a three-way tie 2-1 tie for first. Forza1 coach Dani McCree said the turning point in the tournament for her team was rallying to win.
“The girls didn’t panic, stuck to our game plan, and played clean volleyball,” she added.
Forza1’s next win, Sunday in three in the quarterfinals over Dallas Premier 18 Black, clinched a bid, thanks to previously-qualified Northern Lights making the final four.
“My expectations for going into the weekend included qualifying for a bid and getting into the finals match,” McCree said. “We made it to the semifinals through some adversity with injuries, so I’m proud of the girls and how they stepped up to the challenges we faced. We qualified for a bid and that was the biggest goal for us.”
Molly McCarthy, the lone junior on the team, helped catalyze the bid run. A tall libero committed to Kansas, her consistent passing made it possible for Forza1 to run a diverse offense all tournament long. Lauren Grover, a 6-1 senior committed to Santa Clara, also had an outstanding tournament. A big block, she moved seamlessly between the middle and outside hitter positions in order to neutralize the other team’s biggest hitters.
NORCO came into Crossroads uncertain about how it matched up against other teams in the field. Coached by Jared Rudiger, this group is undersized for an 18s team and has no Division I signees on its roster. Playing against Open teams in Omaha over President’s Day Weekend, the team went 2-6 and finished 12th out of 14 teams. In their one 18 USA tourney before this one, NORCO placed 21st in a field of 32.
“Our goal was to compete every point and see how it played out,” Rudiger said. “We had to battle and our team flow and team chemistry were the keys to our success.”
NORCO finished second behind Shockwave in its opening pool, then opened day 2 with a sweep of Dallas Premier on its way to a 3-0 showing. NORCO then came from behind to defeat Southern Arizona Volleyball Academy 18 Black – whose three losses came only to teams among the top four – on Sunday morning to clinch its bid.
“Our setters did a great job running a very balanced off all weekend,” Rudiger said. “Our ball control was solid all weekend. Our libero, Abbie McCrimmon (MSU Denver), along with Emma Stenner (not playing in college), our OH1, Sydney Leffler (Colorado Mesa), and Lacy Hunt (NJC), were solid all weekend in the passing lanes.”
• Fifty (50) teams decided to give 18 American at Crossroads a try. Mizuno Northern Lights 18-B not only was seeded first; it won the whole dang thing without dropping a match. Coached by Mike Vogel, 18-B went three days and dropped only one set, to Silver State 18 Dana on day 2, over nine matches. It faced Woodlands Revolution 18 Adidas, a team that had been 9-0, in the finals and prevailed, 25-17, 25-14. It was, quite simply, a dominant showing for 18-B, the club’s third team at the 18s level.
“As we prepared for the Crossroads Qualifier, our goal was to win and we felt like that was very realistic,” Vogel said. “We finished third in the Northern Lights Qualifier in January and second in the Presidents Day event in Omaha. We have a strong team and have been playing well. Being the No. 1 seed in a bracket of 50 teams can be a bit intimidating but our girls were confident that we could live up to our seed.”
Although the team went 9-0 and were most impressive in the final, things didn’t go as smooth as it seemed for Lights. On the Monday before leaving for Colorado, the team lost a player to injury. On Friday morning, it lost another to COVID protocols.
“At that point, we weren’t quite so confident in our potential to come away with a bid,” Vogel admitted. “However, our girls were amazing and we found a really good groove with the eight players we had left. Once we got it going we started to believe that it was possible that we could still end up winning the whole thing. The closer we got to Sunday, the more we felt like no one could stop us.”
Vogel said the key to pushing all the way to the bid was a “meaningless” match against a winless team on day 2, after his team had already clinched advancement as the pool’s No. 1 seed. Lights found itself down, 24-13, and out of rhythm. After a side out, Lights served 11 straight points, completing a 12-0 run that saw it go ahead, 25-24. Middle blocker Kinsey Cronin had six consecutive kills and a solo block to take Lights into the lead. Cronin finished the set, which Lights eventually won, 27-25, with 10 kills and 1.5 blocks.
“After winning that set, I think the girls believed they were unstoppable,” Vogel said.
Lights’ middles, Cronin and Sylvia Koenig, had outstanding tournaments, as did back courters Anna Phommesengkeo and Jordyn Brownlee, who were nearly flawless in serve receive and on defense. Vogel acknowledged, however, that every player was instrumental to the team’s success.
“Our entire team stepped up their game and we absolutely could not have won without every one of them having an exceptional tournament,” he said. “We are so proud of all of them for the way they pulled together and reached their goal of winning the bid.”
• Before we move on to coverage of the 18s and 17s from MEQ in Louisville, let’s enjoy a brief two-Dot interlude.
First, here is suggestion No. 2 from Hall of Fame coach Terry Pettit’s “Ten Suggestions for Coaches,” which can be found, in full, at https://terrypettit.com/:
2. Leave sarcasm at the gym door. Sarcasm is easy and fun with peers but it erodes trust when used by an authority figure with the people you are attempting to teach or lead. Even when the person with less power laughs she can feel diminished by the most important person in her development.
• Our “Video Clip of the Day” and last for the week, per orders from swamped big boss Lee Feinswog, is entitled “Double Trouble” and stars Pine Bush VBC 15U libero Emily Armida. Remember, folks, it’s not two contact unless the ref blows the whistle! Pine Bush ended up winning the point!
• The second of three consecutive weeks of Mideast Qualifier fun took place in Louisville, with the 17s and 18s taking center stage. Today, we’ll discuss the 18 Open division, with everything else coming tomorrow. That will give some USA and American coaches one more day to submit details on their qualifying stories. I’m waiting on seven … wouldn’t it be nice if everyone came through?!!!
In 18 Open, with so many teams already qualified, I predicted last Thursday that three bids would not come out of this division, as trickle-down bids only extended to eight places. I was dead wrong, as Adversity G18 Adidas, HJV 18 Elite and Tri-State 18 Blue joined already-qualified OTVA 18O Felix in the top four!
Besides OT, which finished second, here are how the other nine previously-qualified teams fared:
Academy Volleyball Cleveland and Carolina Union – T-5
Metro VBC of DC, Milwaukee Sting and Elevation – T-9
FC Elite – T-13
Mintonette m. 81 and Circle City – T-16
Michigan Elite – T-19
With 10 previously-qualified teams finishing T-19 or better and Adversity, Houston Juniors and Tri-State copping bids, that leaves several other teams in the 46-team field to finish as well as or better than some already-qualified teams. They are:
Fusion Red and nationally-ranked WAVE – T-5
Adversity Purple – T-9
Academy Rage and Michio Chicago – T-13
Impact Smack, CVC, East Coast Power, Unified, Rockwood Thunder and ECVC Hurricanes – T-19
• ECVC Hurricanes 18-1, from Virginia Beach, may have finished T-19 with a 4-3 record, but the team achieved something no other ECVC team had ever done in the club’s young history: it went 3-0 on day 1 in an Open National Qualifier. The first-place Friday finish included a three-set win over national No. 18 Michigan Elite. Standouts on that first day included Michelle Urquhart (Tulane), Chloe Dupuis (ETSU) and Jiji Lykins (Providence).
“After winning four of the first five matches, they dropped a tough three-setter to Adversity Purple to drop down into Silver, but doesn’t take away from an amazing experience to play versus some of the nation’s best!” exclaimed club director Craig Dooren.
• On Sunday morning, an hour before play was set to begin on the final day at MEQ, I received an email from Tri-State Elite club director Kelly Crowley (I love these interactions by the way; I’m excited to see what happened and get excited when coaches, directors and other administrators share that excitement).
Crowley shared the news that Tri-State Elite 18 Blue, which had never attended a national qualifier in its seven-year history, was 6-0,with three wins already over already-qualified teams; and on the verge of qualifying in its first-ever attempt.
Understand, Tri-State wasn’t some huge underdog; the team was ranked No. 21 nationally by VolleyballMag.com going into the event. It’s just that Tri-State is a JVA club and does not attend Junior Nationals. But when Triple Crown got postponed, it needed another event, since the team’s goal is to end the season in April.
“We discussed and landed on attending MEQ,” Crowley explained.
I’m not sure the club ever expected to be playing for a bid, however. That’s because the team was playing without OH Julia Marr (shoulder) and without OH Emma Grace (broken nose/concussion).
“This group just keeps working and grinding,” Crowley said.
Crowley also shared the story of MB/OH Madison Merz. Here’s how he tells it:
“In the fall, Texas Tech decided that they were pulling Madison’s scholarship due to COVID and some current TT athletes staying for extra eligibility. One month ago, she unexpectedly lost her father when he was out of town. It was absolutely heartbreaking for Madison and our TSE family. This team and Madison have rallied for one another time and time again.”
Merz, now committed to Western Michigan, was instrumental to Tri-State’s 6-0 start.
“She is performing at a very high level, like always,” Crowley said. “Sometimes you’ll find her banging and cutting around the block in the middle. Other times you’ll find her crushing line from the right side, next you’ll see her digging a kill attempt in middle back and then scoring on the pipe.”
Tri-State opened Gold Pool play on Sunday with a brutal loss to Metro, 19-17 in the third. In a three-team pool, where only the pool winner advances to the semifinals, one loss can mean the end of a team’s bid chances. But CUVC did Tri-State a huge favor in the pool’s next match by sweeping Metro. That meant, in a pool played without tiebreaking playoffs, that if Tri-State could sweep CUVC in the pool’s final match, it would emerge first and make the semifinals.
That’s precisely what happened!
Indeed, Tri-State coach Matt Long was so unfamiliar with the USAV processes that after his team lost a tough three-set semifinal to eventual winner Adversity, he was in his team huddle telling his charges how hard they played and how sad he was that they didn’t get a bid knowing they’d played their hearts out all weekend. What Long didn’t know was that his team had secured the bid before the match, as one of the final four, given that OT 18 Felix already had its bid.
“It was very exciting,” Long said, adding that he honestly was more concerned about the great competition the team got to play than earning a bid.
Despite playing down two strikers, Long said that Tri-State fought hard for every point all weekend.
“That alone was the factor that let me know this team was special,” he said.
Merz played huge all weekend for Tri-State but she was hardly the only one. Caroline Clippard also contributed a high-powered attack, setter Emma Grome made “bad balls great” and “ran a great offense,” Emily Wichman made some massive digs to keep some big rallies going, and Sammie Engel was great on the service line.
• Houston Juniors won regionals the weekend before MEQ and was intent on upgrading its National bid. It did just that, going 6-3 to finish tied for third, but little came easily.
“This weekend was all about surviving and advancing…and a lot of fun,” 18 Elite head coach Kara Pratt said.
For the first two days, Houston Juniors took the “survive and advance” theme literally. The team needed to beat KiVA on Day 1 to stay in contention and did so in three sets. The team needed to beat Circle City on Day 2 to stay in contention and did so in three sets.
Pratt always knew that this team would take time to mesh, given that only six were from last year’s 17 Elite team. The other six included one holdover from last year’s 18s, one from last year’s 17 Premier squad and four from HJV 17 Elite South.
Pratt saw that mesh the weekend before at regionals but didn’t see that brilliance return in full glory until bidding time on Day 3.
“Walking into our Gold Pool 3 as the 3-seed with two teams who previously had already qualified Open, AVC and Milwaukee Sting, we knew we had to take it up a notch,” Pratt said. “We played at a level that we had long awaited, and almost played flawlessly, sweeping both back-to-back matches.”
Pratt added that the flawless play didn’t start immediately on Sunday.
“We missed the first serve of Match 1 versus AVC and I jokingly look to [Assistant coach] Phil [Nickel] and say, ‘Well that’s how we want to start off the day!’ As the match went on, I felt our blocking, and the energy and emotion throughout play that ALL players brought, BOTH on and off the court, could not be matched.”
• On Thursday, I picked national No. 13 Adversity, the overall sixth seed, to win 18 Open at MEQ. So, of course they did! The team, coached by Marco Quintana, had only one hiccup: a Day 2 loss to nationally-ranked Milwaukee Sting after advancement had already been secured.
Adversity came to Crossroads with big expectations, coming off a second-place finished behind Union 18 UA in St. Louis over President’s Day Weekend.
“We had the confidence and, more importantly, the drive to go for it all,” he said. “We had prepared both mentally and physically for these goals, the team was locked in mentally and persevered through consistent effort and through continuous competitiveness.”
Fortunately for a club called “Adversity,” the loss to Sting to finish Day 2 did not carry over to Day 3. Quintana’s squad swept close matches, over both WAVE and Adversity’s Purple team, to win the pool and the bid. The team then snuck by Tri-State in three in the semifinals, before taking out OTVA in a two-set championship match victory.
“Our team showed tremendous focus, composure, and perseverance to bounce back and achieve success Day 3,” Quintana said. We found a new level of togetherness and a winning mindset, which is a baseline for the remainder of the year.”
Adversity got terrific efforts from Rachel Muisenga, Gigi Barr and Madi Malone throughout the tournament, but, as with any winning volleyball team, “it takes a village.”
“This was a true team effort with high focus and dedication to the goals,” Quintana said.
• Felix Viera was thrilled to see his OTVA team double qualify at MEQ. Coming off a 9-0 showing at Beast of the Southeast four weeks before, the Orlando team matched that record, against a much stronger field, until running into a hot Adversity team in the championship match.
“This was a very high level qualifier,” Viera said. “The girls remained focused and played at a high level from beginning to end. I believe our defense and dynamic offense helped us succeed throughout the tournament, as well as the performance of Valeria Rosado, Jordan Hardy, Alanys Viera, Laila N’diaye and Jeila Fullerton.
OT plays again this weekend in Las Vegas.