Daily Dots (March 25, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)

• Continuing our MEQ 18s coverage from yesterday, the 18 USA field in Louisville had 90 teams vying for three golden tickets to Columbus. Let’s give a tip of the cap to whomever seeded this division, because here are the top five overall seeds at the start, followed by their final placement:

#1 seed PVA 18 Elite — finished 2nd
#2 seed Texas Pistols 18 Black – finished 4th
#3 seed Upward Stars 18 Corey – finished 1st
#4 seed Drive Nation 15 Red – finished T-5
#5 seed HP Illinois 18 Elite – finished 3rd

Ninety teams and this is how it turned out! If I knew how to insert a handclapping GIF, I would!

Those five teams combined to go 43-4, and lost only to one another. Impressive! (Insert same GIF)

With a roster of nine, led by setter Abigail Breeden, Upward Stars ran the table, finishing 10-0, in its first tournament playing together this club season.

“Our expectation was to go into it with the confidence that we could learn/adapt/even evolve throughout the weekend,” head coach Corey Helle said. “We planned on competing and seeing how we’d stack up in the USA division.”

Upward Stars

Helle said that his team showed great chemistry and was resilient when up against the ropes. Four times, Upward Stars was extended to three sets, including in the semifinals and finals.

“We went 10-0 but could have legitimately lost four matches,” Helle said. “A couple of teams had match point against us, but we were able to stay assertive and execute when we were down.”

Helle said the first match on day 2 versus Mintonette m.82 may have been the key moment that led to Upward earning the bid. The team had barely survived its last day one match, 17-15 in the third, then lost its first set on Saturday just 12 hours later and was down 14-6 in the second.

“One of our middles got a big kill and she turned to the rest of the group and yelled ‘Let’s GOOOO,’” Helle recounted.  “We went on to win that second set and the match – which led to us being able to win our pool.”

Helle lauded Breeden, a Charleston Southern signee, saying he felt that she was the most impactful player in the entire division. He did add that, “ All nine players were superstars in their role.”

PVA, which qualified second, was 9-0 without dropping a set entering the championship match. The Kansans won the first set, before losing the final two to settle for Silver.

Both third-place finishers, HP Ill and Texas Pistols, lost their only two sets in the semifinals. HP had previously qualified, so Texas Pistols earned its bid when it edged SKEVA 18 Blue, 22 and 21, in the quarterfinals.

PVA, HP ILL and Texas Pistols were all offered the chance to share their glory moments, and I thought they would, but the deadline caught up to them. Again, the invitation is open for them to contribute a Dot or three to a future Daily Dots column. As I’ve said before, all qualifying teams deserve to have their one shining moment, because it may be their only shining moment all season long!

Dunes 18 Black

Dunes 18 Black was the fourth overall seed in the 95-team 18 American field. Coached by Jordan Staus, the Northern Indiana squad crushed its first nine opponents on the way to the championship match. How dominant was Dunes? Over nine matches, Dunes allowed more than 20 points in a set just twice. That was the same amount of times it held opponents to fewer than 10 points.

Staus said there was an urgency to the team’s mission last weekend.

“We had discussions in previous weeks about needing to win a bid to Nationals,” he recounted. “For some of these girls this is the last time they will play competitive volleyball, so they want this to last as long as possible. I always tell them to try hard and do what they are supposed to do and good things will happen.”

For nine matches, Dunes played like a team bent on getting that bid. In American, however, only the tournament winner walks away with an invitation to the dance. Dunes needed one more match and was shaken in the final when it lost Game 2 to 1st Alliance 18 White, the third overall seed.

“I told them, “It’s a new game now,’ and to have short term memory when it comes to Game 3,” Staus explained. “I think they mustered up some energy after a long day and came together as a team to win the third set and the championship.”

Staus was asked (by me) to name a player who stepped up over the weekend. He refused, saying:

“I constantly emphasize to them that volleyball is a team sport. If everyone does their job on the court and gives 100 percent, then they will be successful. Every single player on my roster did what they were supposed to do and it paid off.”

Unsolicited editorial comment coming (not coming down on you, Jordan, as this is commonplace):

On the one hand, the sentiment is wonderful. Volleyball is the ultimate team sport. A pin doesn’t get a block unless the middle closes it. Kills don’t usually happen without two other worthy contacts. Teams don’t win if the ball isn’t served over the net or controlled in the back row or chased down (or dug up) when it seems ticketed for the floor or set with the right tempo and location to give a hitter the best chance to score.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice for player to see their names in bold? If I was watching MEQ in person, I’d be able to highlight players who helped the team win. I was not there, however. My suggestion to coaches when prompted with the “who stepped up?” question is to get creative. Rather than write that every player did their job, consider writing, “The defense and passing of Olivia Voelker and Katherine Schmitt allowed setter Halle Seaburg to use her full range of offensive weapons, including pins Emily Rastovski, Elise Swistek, Catherine Vermuelen and Myrriam Dhoore and middles Ryleigh Grott and Justine Talbert. Grott, Talbert, Dhoore and Seaburg also got their hands on a lot of ball at the net, making life easier for the water bugs in the back row. Same effect, but maybe with slightly more resonance.

End editorial comment

• Let’s take a short humor break before we get back to club coverage. As I was driving down the hill yesterday towards lunch sushi, I decided to try to name Club All-Americans at the conclusion of the season. I determined that the list needed a catchy name, to differentiate what we did with any list my former employer might put out. What immediately popped into my mind was “the IT girls.” You know, those players who just have “IT.”

But then I realized something: they might be known as the VolleyballMag-Its. 

Maybe that’s a better list name for players who fly under the radar…

• Turning now to 17 Open at MEQ, a total of six teams had so far qualified for Junior Nationals before last weekend and two, Drive Nation 17 Red of Texas and Adversity G17 Adidas of Illinois, were in the 46-team field in Louisville. Both ended up finishing among the top three, with Jacob Hanan’s Drive Nation team taking home Gold medals.

DN and Adversity both qualified at Northern Lights in January. They even faced off in a Gold pool on day 3, with Adversity winning in two tightly contested sets on its way to the championship match, where it lost to Premier Nebraska 17 Gold. Drive Nation earned its bid by defeating Mizuno Northern Lights 17-1 in the third place match.

The tables turned somewhat at MEQ, as both teams found themselves in the semifinals after winning Sunday Gold pools. This time, Drive Nation prevailed, although it needed overtime in Game 1 and three games total in order to do so.

Hanan said that Drive Nation made the trek to Louisville with one thing in mind: winning a championship. 

“We had other expectations as well, such as getting another shot at Adversity, hopefully playing A5, and playing TAV again,” he added.

Hanan said that Drive Nation had a moment of reckoning in the tournament that spurred it to the title. After sweeping through its first day pool, DN faced Mintonette m.17 to start day 2 and got swept, including a 25-14 beat down in the first set. 

“We came out flat and uninspired,” Hanan said. “Mintonette played well and we did not. They wanted to win and outplayed us.”

The loss forced Drive Nation to be perfect the rest of the pool or fall from contention. When it swept MN Select 17-1 in its last match, forcing a three-way 2-1 tie for first, pool perfection following the opening loss proved critical to Drive Nation emerging first in the pool.

“To almost be eliminated on day 2 and needing luck is a scary thing,” Hanan said. “So, from that moment on, we talked about not allowing anyone else to outwork us and to be more disciplined in all aspects of what we do. Winning doesn’t just happen; winning is hard, especially at this level. We talked about how winning happens. It happens by doing the little things better than everyone else. Discipline!”

After escaping day 2, Drive Nation swept its way to the semifinals, then stared down A5 in the championship match after getting by Adversity. A5’s Emma Farrell seemed intent on thwarting Drive Nation’s push to the title with amazing defensive efforts, but DN was able to overcome a set 1 loss to win in three. 

Drive Nation 17s

“All my players played huge minutes and had huge moments in every match,” Hanan said. “Middles Bella Ortiz and Kelsey Perry were huge in the semis and finals, with huge blocks and game saving plays. Outsides Brynn Williams, Camryn Hill and Zoe Hall were dominant all weekend offensively. Camryn and Brynn passed and defended amazing. Setters Jordan Chapman and Jazzlyn Ford all weekend set an amazing offense, which kept teams guessing. They both served extremely well and were clutch in moments we needed it.  Libero and Defensive Specialist Angela Henson and Joyce Wang were the anchor of the defense and our serve receive. They came up with huge plays in huge moments, covered hitters well to give us second opportunities, and kept us in system most of the time. They served well, too. Opposites Peighton Serda, Jean Dixon and Jessie Moore blocked extremely well for us. They kept the big outsides at bay and created havoc for the opposition. They were also huge point scorers for us. When we needed to get out of anything they came through clutch.”

“So, as you can see, we had everyone doing their part for us to get to the championship and also helping us win it,” Hanan said. “We played well as a team and stayed together the entire time. Truly a team championship.”

Adversity was 8-0 with just two sets dropped when it took on Drive Nation in the semifinals.

“Drive Nation is a phenomenal team, with an outstanding coach,” Adversity’s Kyle Masterson said. “It was a great match.  At one point in the match, during a timeout, I just told our girls to look around. It seemed like the entire convention center was watching our match.  That’s why we go to these high level qualifiers. It’s so much fun to play in those environments.”

Adversity lost to Drive Nation to end its tournament, but will take a 17-2 qualifier record into Lone Star in one week’s time. The Chicago-area team’s only losses at both Northern Lights and MEQ came to the tournament champion.

“I don’t think it’s possible to be any happier and just proud of 17 Adidas,” Masterson said. “These girls are doing high school and club at the same time.  As a club we are just going on Sundays to let them play at their high schools for the next month or so.  We only had two full team practices in the month of March leading up to the tournament.  For them to go in as the #1 and finish T3 and double qualifying is just remarkable.”

Masterson said that libero Gillian Grimes distinguished herself all weekend by making dozens of jaw dropping plays.

“I have yet to see any libero in the country that compares to her,” he said. “At this rate she is going to have ‘USA’ on the front of one of her future jerseys.”

Masterson also lauded the play of 6-3 MB/RS Lindsay Oldendorf and her unmatched intensity, as well as OH Rylen Reid, who can score from anywhere.

“It blows my mind how Rylen is still uncommitted,” Masterson said. “She is a true six-rotation outside touching 10-1. She hits on the left, middle, right, back row….. hell if she was two courts over she would figure out a way to score! Her serve almost single handedly won us our match versus an amazing Rockwood Thunder team.  Some big time program is going to get a MAJOR steal with her.”

• Full qualifier fields — where you go from 12 pools on day 1 to six on day 2 — typically produce three Gold pools of four or four pools of three on the final day. MEQ went the latter route, followed by a semifinal bracket for all first-place finishers. That can lead to a lot of drama if everyone in the semifinals are still bid seeking, because one team will have two chances to qualify and fall short. Often, the agony of defeat is as compelling as the thrill of victory.

In this case, however, with two of the four teams having bids in hand, the other two semifinalists, A5 and TAV, became automatic qualifiers, shifting the drama to the fifth-place bracket. More on that later…

A5 17 Jing

A5 17-Jing hardly had a smooth ride to qualifying. A team loaded with physicality, Jing Hou’s team lost to Milwaukee Sting 17 Gold on day 1 after advancement was assured, then lost to 1st Alliance 17 Silver on day 2 after first place in the pool had already been clinched. The team was never at risk of being out of contention before the Gold pools, but the body of work to that point didn’t scream sure-fire qualifier. Fortunately, A5 turned things around on day 3.

“Our expectations for the weekend were to play our best and set out to work hard to receive a bid for Nationals,” Ashleigh Tompa, A5’s assistant coach, noted. “We were close to qualifying in Orlando (fourth place at Sunshine) and felt MEQ would give us the opportunity we needed to win. The expectations we set for the team were to play their hardest and let go of their mistakes. Having our team play with a clear head and determined focus is what we really wanted to see over the weekend.”

Tompa said that the semifinal victory over TAV 17 Black, 25-23, 26-24, was especially gratifying. The coach said the team maintained its intensity throughout that tense match and got a huge effort from OH Cheridyn Leverette.

“Not letting up, and going point for point with a very physical team showed us what level our team is capable of performing during high level stressful situations,” she said.

TAV came to MEQ having twice lost during Tour of Texas play two weeks before. This was a team still searching for its identity, but might have found it in Louisville. Ping Cao’s team won its first eight matches, including Gold pool sweeps of m.71 and KC Power 17-1; to reach the semifinals and clinch a bid.

“We wanted our team to keep its focus throughout the entire tournament,” assistant coach Melanie Mercer said. “After two months of practice, we were able to put all of our skills and practice to the test. A memorable moment was when Miranda Howard went on a 15-0 serving run, while our team put up a great defense to keep her at the serving line.”

Setter Harmony Sample, OH Anyia Clinton and libero Naylani Feliciano were among those playing well for TAV.

• Bids for A5 and TAV meant one more bid recipient needed to be identified among the four teams that placed second in their respective Gold pools. Of those four teams, three, Nebraska Elite 17 Alpha, Epic United 17 Elite and KC Power, all swept the team that finished third in their pools. Only Circle City 17 Purple was extended to three, as Michio Chicago 17 National pushed the host club to 15-12 in the third.

The fifth-place bracket meant four teams fighting for one spot. Don’t you just love the drama?

Nebraska Elite 17 Alpha

Nebraska Elite snuck by Epic United in three. Circle City needed just two sets to get by KC Power. Looking at the scores for Nebraska Elite and Circle City in the final fight for a bid, 15-25, 25-23, 15-13, in favor of the Nebraska team, made me wish that I was a fly on the wall in Louisville.

“In the final match to qualify, our team put on a block party,” Nebraska Elite coach Dr. Andrew Wehrli said. “We really slowed down the other team’s offense and put some defensive plays together to create quality swings.”

In Nebraska Elite’s previous qualifying effort at Northern Lights, the team had finished tied for fifth, losing only to Drive Nation and Adversity. Wehrli said that this tournament featured huge growth moments for many of his players.

Meg Raabe (RS) hit over .400 on the weekend, Bianca Martinez (MB) changed the course of our final match with big physical blocks; and Ava Heyne (OH) found her rhythm on the outside and gave us a lot of flexibility to create match-ups,” he explained.

Wehrli added that he went into the tournament believing that his talented and deep team could compete with everyone and had his suspicions confirmed over the three days.

“I was proud of the team,” he said. “We put ourselves in some very good situations and competed well against everyone!”

Texas Pistols 17 Black qualified second in 17 USA at the Sunshine Volleyball Classic on March 14. Coached by Brad Roberson, the team came to MEQ one month later with winning on its mind. A 10-0 showing with no sets dropped in a 107-team field is a loud statement indeed!

We haven’t yet heard from the team and are unable to write more about this impressive achievement, but invite the club to be the focus of some future Dot if/when we learn more about its great weekend.

• Thanks to Texas Pistols, three other teams, extending to four places, were able to make qualifying memories at MEQ. Texas Tornados 17 Adidas went 9-2 to claim second. Ozark Juniors 17 Elite and TAV 17 Blue each went 9-1 to tie for third.

Janice Pressley, who was a longtime coach and administrator at Willowbrook before moving to the Tornados this year, said that the goal for her team was to make the Gold bracket on day 3.

“Once we make it there, anything can happen and anyone can be beaten in any given match,” she said.

The Tornados made the contending bracket, despite a day 2 pool play loss to KiVA 17 White, by winning a challenge match with Rockwood Thunder 17 Navy. Pressley said that winning that match just an hour after losing to KiVA set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
“We had to hit the reset button and have confidence in ourselves during the crossover match,” she explained. “It definitely changed the course of how we locked in. We were determined to finish our goals.”

Sunday sweeps of Union 17-UA and A5 17-Missy put Texas Tornados into the semifinals and clinched the bid.

“We had lots of focus and concentration on each individual match instead of trying to win the whole tournament from the beginning,” Pressley said. “We set goals every day and we achieved them, which put us in position to achieve the ultimate goal of winning the whole tournament!”

Based on the consistent hitting of OH Alyssa May and a roster where each player stepped up to be the catalyst at different times throughout the tournament, the Tornados got by Ozark in the semifinals to make the championship match, only to fall to the Pistols, 25-17, 25-21, in the Gold Medal match.

“We were close,” Pressley said.

Ozark and TAV Blue took similar paths to their bids. Both teams were undefeated and had not lost a set before making the semifinals to qualify. In the semis, Ozark fell in three to the Tornados, while TAV Blue lost two deuce sets to the Pistols.

Ozark originally was scheduled to play in Open but changed to USA a couple of weeks before first serve.

Ozark 17s

“My expectation going into this tournament was to qualify,” head coach Denise Bonanno said.

Injuries to the team’s starting setter and a starting middle, during preparation for play, made the challenge more daunting, as both ended up missing MEQ.

“We knew we were going to have to work harder and play smarter, but our expectation didn’t change,” Bonanno said.

The team ended up doing exactly what Bonanno hoped it would.

“There was not one key moment that sparked our qualification but, instead, each game built upon the one before it,” she added.

Allie McCasland (setter) and Madelyn Sestak (middle) both rose to the occasion this weekend, Bonanno said.

“Both players were put into a pressure situation after injuries sidelined two players before the tournament,” she added. “These two girls didn’t miss a beat and really played outstanding and made smart plays all weekend.  I am extremely proud of them and what they accomplished throughout the weekend.”

Solid defense, anchored by libero Josie McCroskey; and the offensive attack, keyed by Division I recruits Abby Harris and Toree Tiffee; aided Ozark’s successful run.

TAV 17 Blue

Though TAV 17 Blue didn’t lose a set until the semifinals, that didn’t mean qualifying was easy for Whitney Sample’s squad. The team had to stare down, and defeat, the tourney’s No. 1 seed, Circle City 17 Black, which also was undefeated; in order to clinch the bid. TAV won that match, 25-21, 25-16, behind terrific work from middles Maddie McQueen and Skylar Ellison and outsides Alea Lastinger and Alaina Armstrong.

“We played better than I expected and really came together for this tournament (earlier than I anticipated),” Sample said. “We had to grind out a few tougher matches and did it, even if it was ugly!”

Sting 17 White

Milwaukee Sting 17 White was seeded second overall in the 128-team 17 USA field and had a simple but distinct goal, according to head coach Steve Brunelli:

“Control our own destiny for GJNCs in Vegas and earn the bid. If we failed to reach our goal, we needed to wait for a potential trickle down bid within our region or wait for a region reallocation bid to come our way.”

Sting White went 11-0 and dropped just one set each in the quarters and semis to get the job done. RS Lydia Biggin, OH Kara Schmit and libero Madelyn Weyda all had great weekends.

“We matched our expectations by making it to the finals and finishing the job,” Brunelli said. “It took all 12 players to get us to the finals; without all 12, the end result may not have been the same.”

Brunelli pointed to the adversity his team faced in the quarterfinals, versus Team Atlantis Snipes; and the semifinals, against Rockwood Thunder 17 White; as catalysts for the Gold Medal run. 

“In both the quarters and semifinals, we were down in both sets 1 and 3 and were able to regroup and calm the nerves to make a comeback and win the corresponding sets,” he said. “When your team is resilient and able to make two comeback wins against two talented opponents, you can’t help but think you’re destined to win the whole dang thing.”

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