Tawa’s Daily Dots: Fierce rivalries, great memories, pure joy, emotional goodbyes … volleyball has it all!

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Tawa's Daily Dots 4/27/2021-Sunshine 18 North
Sunshine 18 North

Daily Dots (April 27, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)

• I find myself daydreaming as I await reports from 18s Junior Nationals, the Far Western and Windy City qualifiers and Showdown in the Smokies. I have been covering girls volleyball, high school and club, for more than two decades. I have seen thousands upon thousands of players. Yet, I often have a vivid memory of watching or interacting with a player that stays with me over the years.

So it is with the teams that played for the NCAA Division I national championship on Saturday. As I scanned the rosters, the memories started to flood back in.

I first saw Kentucky setter Madison Lilley when she was in the 15s at Crossroads. I think her KC Power team lost in the semifinals (not sure), but remember how athletic and heady she was and how much fight she had in her.

For Azhani Tealer, my memory takes me to the bleachers at Lone Star, where I did an interview with her before Texas Image played for a bid (or maybe after it already qualified, I don’t know).

Alli Stumler I remember from the JVA Rock ‘N Rumble in Cleveland. I remember that she was part of a two-player wrecking crew for KiVA (with Allyson Cathey?).

My strongest memory of Lauren Tharp came at the banquet when we honored Mercy HS at national champions. I remember going table to table and spending a little more time with her than others because of how enthralling she was to watch defensively.

• I can do this with Texas, too. For Skylar Fields, HJV recruiting coordinator Kara Pratt made Fields come talk to me when she was 15 and playing at Lone Star. She was already jump-touching 10-bazillion and her sis was a D1 commit to UNC … Pratt knew Skylar was going to be big time and wanted her to practice talking to the media.

Nalani Iosia I first saw playing for Mizuno Long Beach on Court A-1 in the corner at Crossroads. She was a setter at 15s and had beautiful hands like her sister, Norene, who sets at Hawai’i. So it was no surprise that she was dishing dimes as a secondary setter for the Longhorns.

The memories for Asjia O’Neal, Madison Williams and Brionne Butler aren’t quite as strong, probably because I saw TAV play SO MANY TIMES. I do have a memory — I don’t think it’s a false one — of Butler absolutely dominating the net at Show Me in a match versus HJV 17 Elite. Jeff Ham, can you confirm this is real?

• For most players, there is a place, or something I wrote, or something a coach or director said to me, that triggers a happy memory. I remember when I found out who Naomi Cabello’s mom was (her HS coach; different last name) or watching Tealer and Molly Phillips play on the same team, or seeing Madi Skinner starting out as a middle, or watching Sydney Petersen and her twin sister (the first set of Petersen twins) playing for CIA, or Greg Loika mentioning Morgan O’Brien in so many Libertyville posts, or chatting with Logan Eggleston’s delightful mother, or hearing about Sophie Fischer’s exploits for Nation Ford when breaking through for the South Carolina large-class title, or watching Regan Rutherford set and hit for a Houston Skyline team that was one of the first elite squads in the history of that nascent club.

The point isn’t that I’ve been doing this for a long time; but rather than you all have gifted me so many happy memories. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

MN Select 16-1 qualified in 16 Open at Windy City on Sunday. We will start telling qualifier stories tomorrow, but editor Lee said no videos this week after today and this MUST be seen. This is the moment that the players on Select found out that they’d qualified for Junior Nationals. Their absolute joy is an affirmation to coaches, directors, even media, of the good work we all do in this sport. Congrats MN Select and thanks for sharing your moment of exhilaration!

As I continue to await reports from the medal winners at 18s Junior Nationals in Columbus — I’m currently 6-for-16 — let’s continue to share stories from Columbus of teams that did not come home with medals.

Sunshine 18 South Bay went 4-4 in 18 Open in what club director Cari Klein called a “bittersweet” weekend for this team. From first-year head coach Ali Fathali Nejad to each of the players, emotions were on full display, especially towards the end.

“For a team that has played together for many years there were so many stories,” Klein said.  Bella LeSage talked about when she was a hitter on Sunshine 11s.  Jesse Szymanski told us where every player we played against was going to college.  Ashley Cudiamat told us, ‘We lost to them in Nationals when we were 15’s,’ or, ‘W knocked that team out at 12s.’  Sunshine enjoyed watching the college matches together and eating as a team.  Every moment was ‘This is our last .. ’ ”

“Before the last match against MAVS, the team that knocked us out at 16s, Jessica Majka, who was a new outside hitter added this season said, ‘Take me out and play Nikki (Underwood) and Caroline (Altergott). They need to finish with the lineup that played together all those years.’  There were MANY tears from everyone — parents and players — after this long emotional year.” 

“The best part of the year was volleyball and this season meant the world to these girls, who have not gotten to attend school and who lost their junior year of going to Nationals.  Sunshine 18 South Bay loved every minute and spent time meeting their new college teammates and watching the semis and finals together.” 

“It’s wonderful to have a team start so young and add special friends along the way.  This group will be at each other’s wedding and supporting each other for the rest of their lives.”  

Tri-State Elite 18 Blue finished tied for 13th in 18 Open its first-ever Junior National Championship. Matt Long’s team won its pool, utilizing
“amazing hard work, true grit, and belief in each other,” then fell to FC Elite 18 Elite and its height and amazing block in the match to get to the Gold bracket.

Setter Emma Grome (University of Kentucky) had a terrific weekend “dishing out pearls to her teammates,” Long said. “OH Caroline Clippard (Ohio University) was the benefactor of many of these sets and finished many with a thunderous arm. Emily Wichmann may be small but played HUGE all weekend with some BIG TIME digs. MB Madison Merz (Western Michigan) was true to form and was relied on heavily all weekend and had a major impact on opening up the Tri State offense.”

“It was great to experience the USAV bid run,” Long said. “The emotional roller coaster at MEQ, when we thought we were out and found a way to win late and obtain this bid, was exhilarating.”

Seal Beach 18-Black made the trip to Columbus to play 18 USA. The team finished with a 2-5 record, but four of the losses came in the third set.

“Every team we faced was equal caliber to us in terms of skill level,” coach Tony Rodriguez said. “No match ever came easy. Overall, the team provided some amazing plays and great competition within every single match.”

“Obviously, it was an emotional weekend, as it would be for any 18s team with this being their last year of club,” Rodriguez added. “The team was extremely supportive of each other and played with passion all the way through.”

Sunshine 18 North went 6-3 in the 18 Patriot division and finished tied for third. The team started 2-2, then won four straight to reach the semifinals of the 56-team tournament before bowing to NIVA 18 X, the eventual champions. A highlight was beating then-undefeated M1 18 Elite in the first round of the Gold bracket on Sunday.

“Middle blockers Mariana Whittle and Erika Bentho established a presence early in the match with a few kills and blocks each,” assistant coach Athena Nestoras said. “Outside hitter Ruby Wedbush managed to get around the strong block to help close out the match and send the team to the quarterfinals facing a strong SIVBC team that Sunshine had lost to the day before. Liberos Nicole Martinez and Alex Townsend dug a hard-swinging offense and extending rallies to allow pin hitters Emma Schwettmann and TaKenya Stafford to close out the game. Finally, in a tough match, Sunshine took NIVA 18 X to 3 sets, falling just three points short of the final round. NIVA went on to win the Gold after.”

• A word about the Patriot division: we do not cover it like we do the other four, for the simple reason that teams do not have to qualify to play in it. Open, National, USA, American … to compete in these divisions, in all but a few regions, you have to be more than a “warm body” to play; you have to do something to get in. That makes playing in those divisions special and distinguishes them from regular tournaments. Patriot is a regular tournament. It’s played at the same site as the special tournaments but it’s still a regular tournament. And it is missing the top 250 or so teams in the country to boot!

Believe me, in a world where I had unlimited time and energy, I would happily write about EVERYONE. I understand that passion for volleyball does not extend only to elite teams.

So, long story short, if a coach sends in a report about her team playing in Patriot, we will include it. But we’re not hunting those coaches down for reports, just as we aren’t doing for countless other regular tournaments.

• With national No. 1 TAV 18 Black losing in Columbus, the door is open for a new No. 1. It could be 18 Open Junior National champions Premier Nebraska 18 Gold, or it might be No. 2 Munciana 18 Samurai or No. 3 Sports Performance 18 Elite, both of whom do not participate in national qualifiers or USAV’s Junior Nationals Championships.

While most of the best 18s teams in the nation were in Columbus battling it out, Samurai and 18 Elite were at the Showdown in the Smokies in Knoxville.

During Saturday’s Power Pool, SPVB, playing without OH Emily Wilson and DS Maya Sands, handed Muncie its first defeat of the year, 30-28, 13-25, 18-16. One day later, Samurai and 18 Elite, which did not lose so much as a set except to one another, met for the championship. This time, Munciana prevailed, 31-29, 25-18.

“These were interesting clashes,” Samurai coach Mike Lingenfelter noted. “Two really competitive matches and great growth opportunities for all involved.”

Saturday’s match featured SPVB rallying from behind to win Game 1, as Zayna Meyer set Ella Wrobel, Ariel Amaya and Alyssa Worden often and Morgan Rank shined on the defensive end. Samurai controlled Game 2 but Game 3 was a back and forth affair, where serving errors made the difference.

On Sunday, the tense Game 1 was “as good a set as I’ve been around for a while,” Lingenfelter commented. “It was a back and forth battle featuring great defense, ball control and extremely talented left side attackers.”

Munciana managed to eke out the Game 1 win, then controlled the second set, with strong side out volleyball, to sweep to the title.

“We grew immensely this weekend and, as usual, Sports Performance brought out our best, but also made us better,” Lingenfelter said. “We are better today than we were going into the weekend and that’s all I need!”

“Munciana always has a great team, and this year is no different,” SPVB coach Seth Salmon said. “Our players respect and love playing against them and the matches are always competitive.  This weekend, out of the five sets we played against them, three of them were 28-26, 29-31, 18-16, so that trend seems to be holding. We are still down a couple of starters, so we look forward to being full strength by AAUs.”

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