Tawa’s Daily Dots: Setting the tone in Omaha and the unknown in Columbus

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Tawa's Daily Dots 4/20/2021
Christina (Kaelin) Najedly (left) and Whitney (Roth) Kramer, shown here in their 13s national championship year, remain closest of friends and coaching buddies 20 years later.

Daily Dots (April 20, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)

The NCAA Division I national semifinals are set: Top-seeded Wisconsin will be joined by No. 2 Kentucky, No. 5 Texas and No. 6 Washington, one team each from the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12.

Every year, I peruse the rosters of the teams that make the semifinals and it brings back so many memories from my days covering these ladies when they were prep players. Kentucky has freshman Madi Skinner, the No. 2 recruit in the 2020 class and a tremendous athlete. Texas has Skylar Fields, the top recruit in the 2019 class and a player as physically gifted as anyone, including Skinner.

Wisconsin has Molly Haggerty, a senior known for her HEAVY right arm. Washington has freshman Madi Endsley, who is Haggerty three years later!

Indeed, of the rosters for the semifinalist teams, I covered everyone except for five foreign players and one Kentucky freshman from Sarasota I never got to see play during high school.

• Here’s one pattern that has existed for as long as I’ve been covering volleyball: NCAA semifinalists often build their success on the backs of an exceptional recruiting class or two.

Wisconsin’s senior class, featuring Sydney Hilley, Dana Rettke, Dani Hart and others, was No. 2 nationally for the high school Class of 2017.

Kentucky’s senior class — Madison Lilley, Avery Skinner, Gabby Curry — was No. 5 that same year.

Washington’s junior class — Ella May Powell, Shannon Crenshaw, Claire Hoffman, Marin Grote, Dani Cole — was No. 3 in 2018.

Then there’s Texas, which always seems to have a top 10 class. The Longhorns’ 2017 class was rated No. 1 nationally, but only Brionne Butler is an impact player for the team. Lexi Sun transferred to Nebraska and Ashley Shook was a backup for the past three years. The 2018 class was No. 6 and features Logan Eggleston, Jhenna Gabriel, Sydney Petersen and Asjia O’Neal. The 2019 class, which included Fields and Molly Phillips, was third.

I should note that Sloane Green did the Class of 2020 (current freshmen) for PrepVolleyball.com. She pegged Kentucky’s class No. 1, Texas’ class No. 3 and Wisconsin’s No. 4. 

You want to know why these teams are in the national semifinals? Often, you have to look no further than the recruiting classes.

• For me, the one thing that jumps out the most about the final four teams is the amazing setters. Kentucky has Lilley, the 2016 Andi Collins Award winner as the nation’s best pure senior setter. Here’s what I wrote about her in her Senior Aces blurb:

Madison Lilly of Blue Valley West was the 2016 Kansas City Metro Area player of the year

Senior Ace No. 4. Madison Lilley, 5-11 S, Blue Valley West (Overland Park, Kansas), KC Power — Kentucky

A game changer for every team she’s on, Lilley is a towering talent who will be Kentucky’s most touted recruit ever. Named 2015 PrepVolleyball.com National Junior of the Year after leading her high school to its first state title in a decade, Lilley is a gutsy setter who will set anybody from anywhere. She is particularly skilled at bettering bad passes, even setting to the opposite pin from off the court, and she has a knack for setting middles. Though she will set exclusively at Kentucky, Lilley is definitely a five-tool player. She is a smooth athlete with a flawless arm swing who loves to attack. Her serve is among the toughest in the nation. She is a dominant blocker at the net and her defense is both relentless and sophisticated. Lilley also is blessed with all the intangibles a big-time setter needs to help her teams win at the highest level. She is a natural leader, whip smart on the court and competes like no other. Lilley also has massive big-match experience, including from having played for the USA on its Youth and Junior National Teams the past two summers, and has been in so many pressure situations that she remains calm in the critical moments. “Her leadership qualities have been even more impressive in the beginning part of her senior season,” said BVW head coach Jessica Kopp. “If she feels the intensity in a practice beginning to dwindle, she brings the team together and lights the fire anew. She will do incredible things at Kentucky and beyond, I am excited to see her excel this year and in the future.”

• Wisconsin has Hilley, who would have given Lilley a run for the ACA except that she hit as a high school senior and that disqualified her to be the best pure setter. Here’s what I wrote about her:

Senior Ace No. 3. Sydney Hilley, 5-11 S, Champlin Park (Champlin, Minnesota), MN Select – Wisconsin

The starting setter for the USA Junior National Team this summer, players like Hilley do not come along very often. She is a great technical setter, the result of finding time to work on her craft alone without prompting. Hilley is self-motivated to be the best and is capable of working on the most mundane details of her skills without tiring. After her ninth grade club season, Hilley was already an accomplished player but spent the summer tirelessly re-creating herself as a setter by practicing the most basic elements of setting for hours on end multiple days a week. Hilley also is a great physical talent. No one keeps her team in system on tight passes like she does. She jump sets everything and does so with surgical precision. In high school, Hilley hits and passes and defends and proves every match that she is great at every aspect of the game. She had 25 kills on 49 swings recently in a win over the then-No. 1 team in the state! Hilley is willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if it thrusts her into roles she’s not used to. “She is the hardest working player in our gym and it rubs off on her teammates,” said John Yunker of Champlin Park. “They don’t dare take a day off with Sydney working hard and this challenges the entire team to work to get a little better every day. Sydney does all of this with a very humble personality, always putting the team first. That is why her teammates love her and why she has been a captain for three seasons!” After the 2016 season the University of Wisconsin will graduate a four-year starter at setter who raised the level of expectations for the Badger program. Coach Kelly Sheffield is getting another superstar setter in Hilley and Wisconsin should have national championship designs all four of her years in Madison.

• Washington has Ella May Powell, who was runner up to Penn State’s Gabby Blossom for the Andi Collins Award one year after Lilley won it. Here’s what I wrote about Powell for the Aces:

26. Ella May Powell, 6-0 S, Fayetteville (Arkansas), Ozark Juniors — Washington

Born to lead, Powell encapsulates all you could ask for in a setter. The two-time Arkansas Gatorade POY shines in all six skills, any of which can turn the tide in a match. A smart setter who can make any hitter look great, Powell’s ability to see the game has given her the aptitude to run a well-balanced offense. In a class full of talented setters, Powell stands out as the fiercest competitor among them.   Many talented opponents across the country have seen late leads slip away at the hands of this Fayetteville native. Adept at scoring at the net and from the service line, Powell is always a threat to steal a point. After captaining the 2016 USA Volleyball Girls’ Youth National Team, which placed second at the NORCECA Girls’ U18 Continental Championship a year ago, this small town setter exploded back onto the 2017 club season with an expanded defensive toolbox and attitude as well an imposing block, helping lead her team to a hard fought 17 Open bid. Fayetteville’s all-time assists leader, Powell will continue her play next fall at the University of Washington. She aspires to follow in the footsteps of Husky greats Courtney Thompson and Jenna Hagglund, former USA National Team members who honed their craft near the shores of Lake Washington.

• Then there’s Gabriel, a Hawai’ian who was unheralded as a high school player. That Gabriel, a top 250 Senior Ace as a libero candidate, was able to beat out one of the top setter recruits in the nation to start for the Longhorns for three years, and now has taken this team to the national semifinals, makes her story perhaps the most compelling of all!

Gabriel was part of the sixth-ranked recruiting class at Texas her senior year of high school, but the key recruits were Eggleston, O’Neal and Petersen. Here’s what I wrote about Gabriel in the recruiting class blurb:

“Gabriel’s athleticism, speed and feistiness will make her an asset for the Horns as she could be competing for time both at libero and setter.”

• Yesterday, I mentioned Encore coach Katie Goldhahn and her championship-winning exploits as a player. Here are some other coaches who won Open club titles during their playing days:

Curtis Yoder, Tstreet 16 Curtis, won Gold in 2002 playing for Balboa Bay 16U.

Maggie Griffin, the director at VCNebraska, not only won back-to-back 18 Open titles in 2003 and 2004, she was MVP both years!

Whitney (Little) Bright, assistant coach, Austin Skyline 17 Black, won 17 Open in 2010 playing for Ping Cao and TAV 17 Black.

“It was, by far, one of the hardest but most rewarding seasons I went through in my career,” she said. “We were pushed mentally and physically every practice to be better than before by our coaches, and it paid off. It helped me learn at a young age how to grind through adversity and come out a stronger person and player, which has carried on throughout my life.

“We were Ping’s first TAV team and didn’t know what to expect. We were introduced to a new volleyball mentality that gave us confidence but also kept us humble through the process.”

Whitney (Roth) Kramer and Christina (Kaelin) Najedly, assistant coaches, KiVA 14 Red, won JOs in 13 Open in 2001 and 17 Open in 2005. Najedly was MVP the 17 Open year.

“At tryouts Whit and I were talking, wondering if the girls had seen us play in high school,” Najedly said. “We came to the realization that the girls weren’t alive then!”

• USA Volleyball is conducting its 18s Junior National Championships starting Friday in Columbus, Ohio. There likely will be high school seniors playing on Day 2 at the same time as the NCAA Division I national championships. That’s unfortunate; yet another COVID-related snafu.

Originally, it appeared that spectators would not be permitted at the event, held at the Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC). More recently, USAV got the green light to allow 15 spectators per team for this event.

This is for the spectators: eat at the Columbus North Market, a food hall just steps from the GCCC. I ate there every day the last time Junior Nationals was in Columbus and the food was on point every time. I particularly enjoyed Flavors of India. Delicious!

• It’s Tuesday afternoon, three days before 18s Junior Nationals, and the schedule has yet to be posted. TAV 18 Black will be the top seed in 18 Open. That’s about the only thing that is certain.

Besides TAV, here are seven other teams which, when healthy, have the goods to win it all in 18 Open:

A5 18-Scott (Georgia)
Adversity 18 Adidas
(Illinois)
Colorado Juniors 18Kevin (Colorado)
Houston Skyline 18 Royal (Texas)
MAVS KC 18-1 (Kansas)
Premier Nebraska 18 Gold (Nebraska)
Tstreet
18-Kasia (California)

I’m not calling any shots just yet, but have a sneaky feeling that someone other than undefeated TAV will leave Columbus with both glory and gold…

• Finally, a shout out to Carolina Select VBC, a club based in Hickory, North Carolina. Select participated in the Rocky Top Bash 2021 over the weekend and had its four Elite teams, 13U Elite, 14U Elite, 15U Elite and 16U Elite, all finish win their divisions with undefeated records.

“As a club our 9 teams went 32 – 10,” club director Chris Winkler noted.

We will add this note: at VolleyballMag.com, we enjoy writing about and publicizing the successes of all clubs, not just those among the national elite. You just need to tell us by emailing jtawa@volleyballmag.com

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