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Tawa’s Daily Dots: Premier Nebraska is well Red, teams from Mizzou and MD are all-American, Gatorade quenches thirst for awards

Daily Dots (May 6, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)

• Today, let’s continue recapping the action from the Northern Lights 15s qualifier, which took place in Omaha and not its usual Minneapolis location. Yesterday, we talked about 15 Open, where Dynasty 15 Black led a parade of previously-qualified high finishers and Paramount VBC 15 took home the lone bid.

In this Dot and the three that follow, we turn our attention to 15 USA, where Premier Nebraska 15 Red, Club Ignit Select 15 Blue and Rockwood Thunder 15 Navy went 1-2-3 in the 34-team field to capture bids to USA Volleyball’s Junior National Championships in Las Vegas.

On April 11, Premier Nebraska 15 Red completed a 10-0 (20-0) run through the 15 American division at Show Me in Kansas City. Three weeks later, not only did Carolyn Campbell’s team try its hand playing USA, it nearly pulled off a repeat performance! Starting as the ninth overall seed, 15 Red went 9-0 to win the title. The team defeated four higher-seeded teams along the way. Only twice was it taken to three and, in those matches, it won the ultimate sets, 15-3 and 15-5. That’s domination!

Campbell said that she looked at playing USA at Northern Lights as a growth opportunity.

“We have played very cohesively throughout this season, but we hadn’t played in the USA division,” she said. “I was excited to see how they performed and to watch them get better.”

Premier had an easy time of things until a Saturday crossover with Michio 15 National. The team swept that match, but both sets were very close. The next morning, 15 Red lost Game 1 of the quarterfinals to Rage Westside VBC 15 Nick, the team it swept to open the tournament. Premier responded by winning the next two sets, 25-19, 15-5, to clinch a spot in the semifinals. Sweeps of Rockwood Thunder and Club Ignit followed, crowning Premier champions for the second straight qualifier.

“Premier 15 Red rose to the occasion and performed!” Campbell exclaimed. “The grit and fight that this team carries with them is nothing to mess with. With each match we played, they stepped up a little more. When we told our players to adjust something or bring the energy, they did just that. They played as one unit, trusting, encouraging and supporting each other.”

On a roster of 10, every player on 15 Red distinguished herself, including injured Brylee Nelson, who has supported the team during her time on the sidelines and has become a fourth coach, along with Campbell, Alexa Van Dyke and Liz Walsh.

Kenzie Kucks and Reese Boyd were effective attackers from the left side for Premier, taking sweet sets from Kyla Dyrstad, a vocal leader who also was an asset from behind the service line. Kate Ligon led the charge in the middle alongside Kennedy Shelburne and Mady Cude, while Sydney Horn had an impressive blocking weekend. Haylee Wolf took control of the back row as the team’s libero. She and DS Grayson Piening scored points on their serve and prevented them with fantastic saves.

• Club Ignit, the third seed overall, overcame a shocking Day 1 loss to win six straight to reach the finals in Omaha and secure its USA bid.

The Day 1 loss came to Apex Volleyball Club 15-1, which won the pool despite being seeded third to last overall. Ignit followed that loss by defeating Synergy 15-1, 25-14, 25-4, to advance to the next round.

“Club Ignit Select 15 Blue’s goal was to compete well enough each match to have an opportunity to play for a bid on Sunday,” club director Tina Carter said. “The mindset for this tournament (as with all tournaments) was to maintain eligibility for Gold each day.”

After a 2-1 first day, Ignit’s focus shifted, Carter said.

“We concentrated on our side of the net and playing together as a team,” she explained. “Where we used to break our huddles with ‘C-I-S,’ the players suggested we change it to ‘love.’ The girls wanted to play for each other, not just to win. They were playing for the opportunity to extend our season and, thusly, the time we were able to spend together as a team. With the change in our huddle break came a change in focus, intensity, and passion.”

A 2-0 Saturday morning led to a noon crossover versus that same Apex team, which had yet to lose a set. Ignit avenged the loss with a straight set win.

“Our defense improved and our servers were focused and aggressive,” Carter said. “This proved to be the difference. That victory, against a very aggressive and well-balanced team, gave the kids the most confidence going into Gold.”

In Gold bracket play on Sunday, Ignit overcame two Iowa rivals, Iowa Select 15 Mizuno and Iowa Rockets 15 R, each in three, to clinch its USA bid. The team played gamely in the championship match, but fell to Premier, 25-21, 25-21.

Setter Brittany Bacorn led the way for Ignit, putting up hittable balls for her mates and inspiring with her relentless work ethic. OH Kenzie Dean scored a ton, including on momentum-swinging broken plays. Aowyn Schrader and Noelle Sutcliffe were very efficient while shuttling between the left side and middle. Maeve Rehmann made an impact with her blocks, RS Sarah Lester contributed on the court and off with her relentless positivity, libero Megan Rembert got the job done on defense and Ashley Staun and Tanith Roush have the team a boost from the service line.

Rockwood Navy

• Rockwood Thunder 15 Navy’s qualification story starts at the MEQ and Show Me qualifiers. Coach Devon Bertillo’s team had chances to qualify both places, but lost the ultimate match at each with bids on the line. Rockwood followed up those near misses by being knocked out of contention on Day 2 at Windy City last weekend.

“We couldn’t wait to get to Omaha and show everyone that we were a force to be reckoned with,” she said.

Seeded second overall, 15 Navy started 5-0 before running into Iowa Rockets in a Saturday crossover. Rockwood won the first set, 28-26, but dropped the next two. The team was still in the Gold bracket but missed out on the first-round bye due to the loss.

Playing at 8 a.m. Sunday, Rockwood Thunder won a nail biter, 30-28, 25-23, over Dynasty 15 Blue, the original No. 1 seed, to reach the quarterfinals. The team then rallied from a set down to defeat Apex in three, but lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Premier Nebraska, when a win would have clinched a bid.

15 Navy had one more chance to gain passage to Las Vegas, in the third place match for the final bid. The opponent, it turned out, was the same Iowa Rockets team that handed Rockwood its first loss the day before.

“When we lost in the semifinals to Premier, we knew there was no way we were losing the third place match and another opportunity to qualify,” Bertillo said.

She was right. Rockwood prevailed, 25-18, 25-23. The road to a bid was tough, but qualifying never tasted sweeter!

Sophie Gagnepain ran a 5-1 offense this weekend after splitting time in a 6-2 earlier in the season.

“She distributed the ball masterfully to our hitters and even came up with a few key blocks in the moment,” Bertillo said. “Jayden Wiese dominated on the right side of the court offensively and defensively as she led all hitters in hitting percentage and was second in blocks. Libero Lilly Vonderheid anchored our back row in serve receive and defense, while Megan Skaggs led the team with 33 aces in 24 sets. Lastly, outside Sydney Davis perfected her combination of shots throughout the weekend, which always kept the opposing defense on its heels.”

Missouri Juniors 15-1 entered the 15 American division at Northern Lights intent on earning a bid to Junior Nationals.

“It has been the biggest team goal the entire season,” coach Mikayla Ell said. “We knew this was our final opportunity of the season to qualify. The previous weekend, we finished fifth at the Windy City Qualifier and a few weeks before we were 19th at the Show Me Qualifier. Each tournament we were getting closer and closer to our goal of qualifying and knew the Northern Lights Qualifier was our last chance.”

Seeded 16th overall in a field of 73, Missouri Juniors won its first six matches, five by sweep, to reach the 16-team Gold bracket. Four wins remained between it and its qualification goal.

“On Day 3, entering the Gold bracket, we had an ‘all or nothing’ mentality,” Ell explained. “It was win and qualify or go home and try again next year. At practice the week after finishing fifth at Windy City and before heading to the NLQ, we (coaches) talked to the girls about ensuring they left their last qualifier without any regrets. We wanted them to leave Omaha knowing they had done everything they could to give maximum effort, play hard every point, and be the best teammate they could be. I think that sparked a ‘can’t quit, won’t quit’ attitude that resulted in earning a bid.”

Missouri Juniors swept its first two Gold bracket matches, but dropped Game 1 of the semifinal to KNVBC 15-1 Shazam, a team it had lost to earlier in the season. The team won the second set.

“It was a huge momentum shift,” Ell said. “When we won that, the confidence soared. There was such a strong sense of determination that we were going to win the third set, advance to the championship, and earn the bid. Because of that sense of determination, after winning the second set of the final four match, by the time we got to the championship, there wasn’t any doubt we weren’t ending that match with a bid. The confidence and the determination were palpable.

“It truly was a team effort — the girls played every point of that match as though they were winning, regardless of the score. That level of belief and mental toughness is only sustainable when every single girl on the team embraces it — it was great to see them accomplish such an impressive feat, but what was most remarkable was seeing how they came together to do it. Mental toughness has been our most formidable enemy this season and I was so proud to witness the way they overcame that obstacle.”

In the championship match, Hannah Vogt had a great serving run to help the team close out the first set. Offensively, Autumn Bax and Bailey Braun took big swings in key moments and high pressure situations. Defensively, Ava Reeser’s and Izzy Herrbold’s consistency on serve receive and defensive pursuit were huge contributing factors to the team’s success as well.

Maryland Juniors

• The York Expo Center in Pennsylvania hosted the 17 American division of the Northeast Qualifier last weekend. It was the last division to compete at NEQ in 2021.

Maryland Juniors 17 Black was seeded first going in and prepared to go all the way in the 44-team field.

“We were eager but focused,” coach Marissa Kozlowski said. “Taking first place was the only option knowing there would be no trickle down bids available.”

The team didn’t allow an opponent to score more than 11 points in any set in its first four wins, then earned two more competitive sweeps to get to the Gold bracket. Two more sweeps followed, putting MD Juniors into the championship match versus Long Island Academy 17 Red. Academy, which had won its two Gold bracket matches 15-13 in the third, promptly won the first set.

MD Juniors did not panic.

“The momentum and determination we ended with in that set led to a fire second set,” Kozlowski said. “The team played aggressively, smart and cohesive.”

Game 3 was tight and Maryland Juniors came out on the winning end, 15-13.

“This really was a team victory,” Kozlowski said. “Everyone was able to contribute, even our injured player, Julianna Gray, who cheered us on from home. Setters Jessica Rothermel and Ashley Barnes read the defense well, and ran a fast tempo to give hitters ample opportunities, which led us to an overall .303 hitting percentage and a .461 kill percentage. Middles Shreenitha Chikyala had 11 kills and Sanaya Srivastava had 4 blocks. Outsides Cassi Shields and Zhenzhu Nelson added 11 kills, and 14 kills and 8 digs, respectively. Right sides Emily Genau added 4 kills and Brooke Heary supplied 3 blocks and 2 digs. DS Briana May had 6 digs and libero Erin Li had 17 digs.

• Gatorade just announced its 51 volleyball Players of the Year for the 50 states and District of Columbia. You can find the entire list here: It must have been a challenging year to pick winners in many jurisdictions, especially those that played no or a limited HS schedule. Kudos to Gatorade for continuing to honor these deserving young women even during pandemic times.

• The 51 individual recipients are now eligible for the Gatorade National Player of the Year award. I have ZERO inside knowledge, but looking over the list of award winners, I think the NPOY comes from five players:

Arizona’s Jordan Middleton, one of the nation’s top juniors;

Iowa’s Phyona Schrader, who just set Premier Nebraska 18 Gold to an 18 Open title;

Kansas’ Caroline Bien, a senior six-rotation superstar for a state championship team, who concluded her career with more than 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs; and

The outside hitting tandem of Nebraska’s Lindsay Krause and Texas’ Ally Batenhorst, the two best hitters in the Class of 2021. Both Nebraska signees, Krause and Batenhorst led their respective high schools to state titles as seniors. My guess is it will come down to these two. Both are fantastic six-rotation players and outstanding students. I’m glad I don’t have to pick between these two…

• Just over a year ago, Julieta Valdes, a standout young volleyball player for The Woodlands HS and Houston Juniors VBC, suffered a heart attack. Her sister saved her life by performing CPR while waiting for EMTs to arrive. Three days ago, Julieta posted this on her Instagram page. Take it to heart. Continued best wishes, Julieta.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Julieta Valdes (@julietava04)

• Finally, I am spending a few hours every day cleaning out our house in preparation for remodel and sale. Today, I came across old copies of “Student Sports Magazine,” where my national coverage of volleyball began. I flipped one open from May, 2002, 19 years ago, to find a feature on Kanoe Kamana’o, the junior setter who’d led Iolani School to its first Hawai’i state title just a few months before. Kamana’o talked about being recruited by 25 schools and wanting to go to the Mainland for college.

Kamana’o eventually decided to stay home and play for the Rainbow Wahine. And what a career she had! She was three-time WAC Player of the Year and a First Team All-American her senior year. Kamana’o even had a stint with the USA Women’s National Team in 2005.

Dave Shoji, the all-time great head coach at the University of Hawaii, reports that Kamana’o now works as a flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines.

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