Tawa’s Daily Dots: Compelling stories in 18 National highlights Junior Nationals coverage

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Tawas Daily Dots 4/28/2021-VCNebraska 18 Elite
VCNebraska 18 Elite

Daily Dots (April 28, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)

• Let’s talk today about 18s Junior Nationals in Columbus. We have reports from 12 of the 16 medal winners between Open, National, USA and America. If I write slowly, perhaps we’ll get a couple of more in before I turn this over to Lee Feinswog for editing.

Let’s start with 18 National, the only division where everyone I solicited for a report delivered in a timely fashion. Thank you!

18 National, much like 18 Open and 18 USA, featured 48 teams in the same format: eight, two-day pools of six with the top three advancing to a Challenge bracket, where pool winners receive byes and second and third play each other first. From the Challenge bracket, an eight-team Gold bracket then plays to determine a national champion.

• Looking at the pools, six of the eight top seeds won their pools. Three ultimately received medals for reaching at least the semifinals.

Two of the top seeds, Nos. 2 and 3 overall, not only did not win their respective pools; they did not advance out of pool play. Houston Stellar 18 Elite, the top seed in Pool 2, went 2-3 and missed out on advancing by losing, 15-13 in the third, to Dallas Premier 18 Black. VCNebraska 18 Elite, the team that won Pool 2, ending up going undefeated to win the entire division …

Seven teams seeded second in their respective pools advanced to play in the Challenge bracket, but only three teams seeded third were as fortunate. NPJ 18 Forefront was the only team seeded sixth in a pool to make the upper half.

• VCNebraska, which dropped just one set during its three-day run through the division, is one of the best teams in the country in ANY division. It’s just that the current club calendar isn’t kind to it.

“We do qualifiers every year with our teams, but because we have so many kids that do basketball and track, it’s really difficult for our teams to qualify, as it’s rare we have a full roster,” club director Maggie Griffin noted.

VCNebraska did play a qualifier this year: Northern Lights at the end of January. Missing two middles, an outside and libero, the team did sweep Pohaku 18-1, but could only manage a 3-4 record and a tie for 15th place.

The team ended up qualifying regionally at the Great Plains Bid Tournament and worked coming to Columbus into its schedule.

Many of the teams competing in 18 National have a high-level collegiate prospect or two. VCNebraska has many more than that, led by setter Elle Glock, a USC signee; and two Nebraska Cornhusker recruits, OH Whitney Lauenstein and MB Becca Allick. The squad also boasts junior OH Mya Larson, a Montana State recruit who had 41 kills this past fall when Wahoo HS captured the Nebraska C-1 title.

In other words, when intact, this Dan Mader-coached team is loaded.

Lauenstein was unavailable to play in Columbus, but the team brought up 6-1 sophomore Karli Heidemann, who had more than 500 kills for a state champion team in the fall, to complete the roster.

VCNebraska went through its pool without dropping a set, matching the high expectations the coaching staff had to this team.

“We wanted good play after good play,” assistant coach Makayla Westphal said. “We knew we weren’t going to win the tournament on one good play, and we weren’t going to lose the tournament on one bad play. We just wanted to stay as consistent as possible and continue making good plays.”

VCNebraska won its Challenge match, 25-17, 25-17, over tough M1 18 Elite, to make the Gold bracket. The match featured an 11-point serving run from Lauren Dirks to finish the first set.

The formula for success versus M1 was the same as it had been for the five prior matches: “Consistent play, strong serve and pass, and a balanced attack kept us in a good position to win each game,” Westphal said. “We didn’t always come out the strongest at the start of each match, but we adapted quickly and made the proper adjustments that were necessary for each matchup. We always gave the girls a small game plan and tried to attack the opponent’s weaker areas. Because our girls did not drop a set in the first two days, I believe their confidence began to build during this time and they were able to take that into gold on Day 3.”

VCNebraska’s only real adversity came Sunday morning at 8 a.m., in the quarterfinals versus Upward Stars 18 Corey. The South Carolina squad, one of two teams that needed to win two Challenge matches the afternoon before to reach the Gold bracket, won the first set, 25-18, before VCNebraska re-grouped to take the next two.

VCNebraska earned comfortable wins in its final two matches, sweeping Gulfside 18U Prime, 25-19, 25-16, in the semifinals before defeating Pohaku, 25-18, 25-18, for the title.

“I believe we had great matchups all throughout the tournament and just stuck to our game plan while executing at a high level,” Westphal said. “The girls stayed steady and had composure even when other teams made their push. They really worked together on each point, and each of the girls was clutch in different moments throughout the tournament. We never relied on one player to get us through.”

The tournament was a showcase for Glock, one of the top setter recruits in the country.

“Our defense and serve receive over the weekend really allowed Elle to show all she has in her toolbox,” Westphal said. “Elle provided us such a balanced offense that was also incredibly quick. She maintains such composure out on the court and has a calming effect. Elle also stepped up defensively on the weekend, digging some difficult attacks and setting up a strong blocking front for our middles to close to.”

Allick, coming off of a broken ankle suffered during high school season, shined in the middle and Larson stood out as a strong and consistent six-rotation asset.

Westphal added that the team left Columbus grateful that they were able to complete at such a high level despite all the distractions of a challenging season.

“We knew they had all played at a high level, but to throw together different components and add new pieces to this puzzle two weeks prior to leaving, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Westphal explained. “We definitely learned the importance of trusting our training and staying mentally tough in difficult situations. A lot of girls gave up things like prom to be there competing at nationals when a trophy and medal wasn’t guaranteed, so we were super thankful that they chose to be part of something that was uncertain.”

• Pohaku is a first-year club headed by coaches who were with Dynasty a year ago. The Kansas club started with just this one 18s team, with plans to add one team per age group next year.

With a roster of 10, Pohaku had a terrific season playing Open events and thought it had a reasonable shot at an At-Large bid to Open, with a 6-10 record against the qualified field. When that didn’t manifest, the team set its sights on winning the National division. The players were intent on putting Pohaku, which means “stone” or “rock” in Hawaiian, on the map.

Head coach Conan Salanoa brought nine players with him to Columbus. Given its status as a one-team club, he didn’t have the luxury other teams did of adding players to the roster from within the club. This became an issue, because junior Lauren Wheeler, the team’s lone setter, had to battle through a stress fracture, and both MB Bonnie Hegarty (illness) and RS Erin Garr (ankle) were limited on Day 1.

Pohaku won its first four matches and emerged from Pool 5 with a 4-1 record and first place in a tiebreaker with Austin Juniors 18 adidas and Club One AZ 18 Platinum. The first round bye in the Challenge phase was welcomed and the team needed everyone playing well to get by intense NPJ, 25-23, 31-29, to advance to the quarterfinals.

Wheeler had to be carried off the court at the end of the match because of the pain she was experiencing from her stress fracture.

“It caused some worry for us going into the Gold bracket, especially because we didn’t have a second option,” Salanoa admitted. “But she embodies the spirit of a Polynesian warrior and we knew she would battle through.”

Sunday morning, Pohaku took on Mizuno Long Beach 18 Rockstar in another epic match. Pohaku won, 27-25, 26-24, on a monster block on match point by OH Aubrey LaPour to send the team to the semifinals against top-seeded CVC 18 Black. See the video of that single shingle here:

“The semifinal against CVC was probably each player’s best game in the whole tournament,” Salanoa said. “We were ready for a battle because we had seen them play a couple times and knew how good they were. It was the best we ever played as a team and we picked a great match to do it. They couldn’t key on any one hitter because each hitter was scoring points at a high rate.”

Salanoa felt good about his team’s chances in the final against a VCNebraska team it had split matches with.

“Going into the game, we were obviously feeling really good about ourselves,” he said. “We just played our best match of the season in the semis and were ready to keep rolling. But when the game started, they were just at another level. They played like they could’ve won the 18 Open finals one court over. Everything that had worked for us all tournament long suddenly didn’t. And we just could never recover. They were the better team in the finals.”

Lapour, Wheeler and libero Aly Gurtiza made the All-Tournament team and were Pohaku’s rocks all weekend long. LaPour scored all weekend long, even against triple blocks; Wheeler was a warrior and ran the team at a very high level; and Gurtiza was unbelievable in the back row.

“But to be honest, each girl was the best version of themselves at this tournament,” Salanoa continued. “Middles Bonnie Hegarty and Jenna Zydlo are by far the two smallest middles that made it to the Gold bracket, but they were able to block and score with the biggest and best of them, Bonnie usually in front of the setter and Jenna off of one foot behind. RS Erin Garr was a consistent threat all weekend long attacking. OH Ella Martin contributed in all phases of the game, DS Kalia Morris came up with some timely digs, and RS Taylor McCarthy dominated from the service line and at the net when Erin went to play middle.”

“As disappointed as everyone was to lose in the finals, the girls enjoyed every moment of the experience and left with their faces smiling and their heads high,” Salanoa added.

• CVC was the top seed, but playing without MB Margo Huff, the team’s goal was to play in a Challenge match on Saturday. That goal was achieved by going 4-1 to win Pool 1, although the Cleveland squad did lose its first match of the tournament to a fired-up Tsunami S181E Dun squad excited to take down the top seed.

Coach Troy Dixon said the opening-match loss created a series of “must wins,” including the last match of pool. Win it and CVC gets first; lose and it places fourth and out of contention. Treating every match after the first as a “Challenge match,” CVC made it to the semifinals by beating Dallas Premier and fellow OVR team TVC 18-Black before bowing out in two to Pohaku.

Everyone played well for his team, Dixon said, but MB Brooke Cirigliano took her game to another level and scored even when everyone knew where the ball was going. Setter Mandy Leigh also had a great weekend, both running the offense and leading the team on the court.

“Looking back, Columbus was exactly what I hoped it would be,” Dixon concluded. “These girls have pushed all year. They earned the right to come home with a medal. They are workers. They grind every day and do it with a smile on their faces. Great kids, great families. They are deserving of whatever accolades they get. In a season that was filled with chaos, we managed to make it through. I hope when these young athletes look back on this season, they can say they made it. When everything was stacked against them, they made it.”

• Gulfside probably had no business coming home with a medal. Coached by former Middle Tennessee State head coach Matt Peck, the team lost OH Paris Thompson, arguably the top senior in Florida, to early enrollment at Notre Dame, then lost two players to COVID protocol the week before heading to Columbus. Gulfside had to add two players from the 18 Elite team — who had never played with 18 Prime — to round out its roster of eight players.

“I did not have high expectations heading in, as we lost 25 percent of our offense and about 20 percent of our blocking and defense (on the eve of the tournament),” Peck said.

Gulfside exceeded Peck’s expectations by surviving two three-set marathons to start and by getting better and better with each passing match. The Fort Myers-area squad won seven straight matches, including a sweep of Excel 18 National Red, to clinch a medal, the same Excel team it had defeated in Open at Big South just a few weeks before.

Gulfside did not play its best match in the semifinal versus VCNebraska, but that didn’t diminish what the team accomplished.

“Our kids played their hearts out,” Peck said. “No one felt we would advance so far without the two players who were with us all season. The two replacements did amazing, and were a huge factor in our success.”

“Florida Gulf Coast commit Skylar English was perhaps one of the premier outsides in National,” Peck added. “She was extremely efficient attacking from the front and back rows. Setter Sophia Leon-Tabor was outstanding, as usual, and all season led our team. Izzy Gentile (Lynn University) also shined as our libero, and, in turn, was selected All-Tournament.”

• Turning to 18 Open, we wrote at length on Monday about national champion Premier Nebraska 18 Gold’s journey from the start of the season to the top of the podium.

In this Dot, we talk about 18 Open runner up Adversity G18 Adidas. The Chicago-area team came to Columbus healthy and ranked No. 6 nationally by VolleyballMag.com. Marco Quintana’s team played like a top seed, sweeping through its pool and Challenge match versus Northern Lights 18-1 to reach the Gold bracket quarterfinals.

“The team had a goal to earn a medal at Nationals, but knew that every match would be important and tough,” assistant coach Melissa Masterson said. “They approached each set with extreme focus and confidence. It was quite impressive to see the team play with the confidence and intensity they did. You could see it, every point of every set, that they were determined to accomplish their goal.”

Getting to the Championship match proved to be a little tougher than the first two days for Adversity.

“We faced a very talented and motivated Mintonette team for the first match of the Gold bracket,” Masterson said.

Adversity had beaten m.81 earlier in the season and felt confident, but Mintonette showed up with high energy and played very well. Mintonette won the first set and looked poised to sweep before Adversity found some grit and an extra gear.

The third set went into extra points.

“You could see the determination and grit as the season was on the line,” Masterson said. “The determination and fight from both teams was impressive to watch as you could tell no one wanted their season (and club career) to be over. Both teams put their hearts on the court in that match and for us to pull out that victory was an impressive feat. We knew at that moment that the team would have the confidence to make it to the finals.”

Adversity made the championship match, and secured a medal, by dominating an undefeated Union 18-UA team it was 0-2 against on the season. The team probably played its best volleyball of the season in that match, Masterson said.

Adversity fell just a few points short in the championship match, but not for lack of effort. Every player on the roster contributed in some capacity.

Rachel Muisenga, who ran a 5-1 most of the season, was asked to also attack as the team made a last-minute decision to run a 6-2 in most of the sets. She handled that change with confidence and the leadership needed to help her team be successful. Middle Gigi Barr and Stella Barr really shined offensively. Six-rotation OH Madi Malone took on a lot of responsibility on offense and with her ball control. And the back row tandem of Franki Bertucci and Caroline Barnes were consistently special at keeping the team in system and making it tough for the other team to score.

Masterson concluded by reflecting on the roster that started Year 1 of the new Girls program at Adversity three years ago.

“To see them get to that Championship match among such talented teams and end their careers with Silver medals is almost indescribable,” she said. “This team has worked so hard and overcame so much. It was a well-deserved opportunity for them all. It is pretty impressive that they were able to accomplish all they did in just three years. But it is a result of their hard work, great leadership and guidance all season from Coach Marco, and the belief that they deserved to be there.”

• We wrote a fair amount about Bronze medal winner Elevation 18 Goller in our Friday and Saturday stories about the 18 Open tournament. Adam Goller’s team won a 20-18 Game 3 humdinger over Dallas Skyline 18 Royal on Day 1 that set the tone for a 5-0 opening pool.

Elevation made the Gold bracket, improving to 6-0 in the process, by knocking off Tstreet 18-Kasia, the tournament’s sixth seed overall, in a Challenge bracket match. The Cincinnati-area team did so by winning the serve and pass battle and siding out at an incredibly high rate.

The team continued to play low error volleyball in a sweep of AZ Storm Elite 18 Thunder, which clinched no worse than Bronze. The team almost made the championship match, too. But after winning Game 1 of the semifinals, Premier Nebraska was just a little better – 25-23, 18-16 better to be exact – and ended Elevation’s season one win short of the finals.

OH Carly Hendrickson, MB Hailey Green and setter Megan Wielonski shined brightest on a team that collectively played its best volleyball of the season all weekend long.

“The team felt good about what they accomplished and acknowledged we worked hard, improved, and had fun,” Goller said.

• We did not hear from Union after Sunday, when the At-Large entrant edged Coast 18-1, 17-15 in the third, to reach the semifinals; and subsequently lost in straight sets to Adversity.

We did, however, hear from head coach Craig Bossmeyer, the evening before, after the Kentucky team defeated Encore 18 Goldhahn in a Challenge match to improve to 6-0 and reach the Gold bracket.

“We’re really just clicking and coming together when it matters,” Bossmeyer wrote at that time. “We as coaches put a game plan together and the girls are executing well, whether that’s on blocking, defense, or something just as simple as serving. That’s huge when you’re matching up with this level of competition. This is high level volleyball out here and what these girls are all about.”

• It’s late and editor Lee needs to work his magic. If you have enjoyed our coverage of Junior Nationals and all the national qualifiers, I hope that you will take the time now to make a voluntary contribution to our cause. Please see the italics below on how and then meet me back here tomorrow for more Dots!

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