Tawa’s HS Dots: Mater Dei’s Golden State win clinches natty; N. Allegheny, Sioux Falls Christian exte...
November 29, 2023
July 5, 2023
This is “Dots,” VolleyballMag.com’s weekly look at 10 things in club volleyball, past or present, that interest me and hopefully will interest you:
• The 15-year-olds have completed play this club season. On June 21, Mintonette m. 51 of Ohio, ranked No. 3 nationally, downed No. 1 Dallas Skyline 15 Royal, 15-9 in the third, to win the 15 Open at AAU Nationals. Ten days later, Skyline returned the favor with a 26-24, 25-21 win in the championship match of the 15 Open division at USA Volleyball’s Junior National Championships.
You might conclude from this information that the top two 15s teams in the nation had separated themselves from everyone else. That would not be correct. Watching 15s this year was so much fun because of how competitive the top 20 or so teams were with one another. It is going to be a joy following this age group over the next few seasons.
• It feels like those 15s coaches also sensed how special this group was, because many decided to get after it not once but twice. The 61-team field at AAUs included four in the national top five and an additional 7-10 considered among the top 40 or so best teams in the age group. Of that number, only one would not go from AAUs to Chicago to compete at Junior Nationals.
Mintonette was the only team to emerge undefeated. Max Miller’s team was extended to three only once over the first three days, which was key.
On Day 4, Mintonette dispatched FaR Out 15 Black in the quarterfinals, but, playing back-to-back, the team came out flat versus Legacy 15-1 Adidas in the semifinals and lost the first set badly, 25-16.
The epic second set featured runs from both teams until the two squads, both ranked among the top five nationally, were knotted at 23 apiece. Mintonette fought off three match points and converted its NINTH set point to win, 36-34, and even the match at one set each.
“Outside of overall grit our pins started setting the block much better and had plenty of touches to help our transition game,” Miller said.
Mintonette won the third set, 15-12, to make the championship match, then outlasted Skyline in a back-and-forth affair for the title.
Outsides Sara Snowbarger and Layla Hoying and libero Emma Cugino were named to the all-tournament team. Cugino was a rock star on defense, as her perfect reads helped he team’s transition game.
After the win, Miller, whose team won 14 Open at Junior Nationals last year; started thinking about Junior Nationals, not necessarily about completing the double, but about surviving pool play to be alive going into Day 3.
“Winning just puts a bigger target on the back of our kids,” he explained. “The defending USAV champions (’22), the current AAU champions (’23), the favorite for the USAV’s vs. playing everyone’s best game …”
• The four teams in the national top five, Dallas Skyline, Mintonette, Legacy and Boiler Juniors 151E Gold, all did enough at Junior Nationals to be in contention on Day 3. Only the Boilers did not win their pool. They were joined in the top 24 by every other team in my national top 12. The team to emerge as champion would have to earn it …
That turned out to be Dallas Skyline. The Triple Crown NIT champion’s path to the title included sweeps of No. 10 AZ Sky 15 Gold, No. 6 Madfrog 15s National Green, No. 9 Houston Skyline 15 Royal and No. 3 Mintonette.
“The whole team had to do their part for us to win Nationals,” said Skyline’s coaches. “Everyone sprinkled their bit and pieces in this national championship week.”
Skyline won because it played consistently over four days. The team went to three in its first match of the tournament but swept everyone thereafter. This was different than its performance at AAUs, where the team played hot and cold.
“At Nationals our team got better each day we played, so our momentum was moving towards the right directions for the final day,” the coaches said.
Keoni Williams, who scored the final point in the championships, was a standout middle for Skyline. She intimidated on the block and slowed down opposing scorers, creating many transition opportunities. RS Taylor Clarke, a high-volume lefty, also was key to team success. She came up with huge kills and blocks on clutch situations. MB Levariya Pinder used her extreme quickness to get kills and blocks out of the middle. Outsides Layla Austin, Skylar Jackson and Reese Poerner all contributed timely kills, setters Megan Nguyen and Madison Victoriano made great decisions and created many one-on-ones. Finally defenders Kiley Brooks and Gigi Whann passed steadily and authored some clutch digs to help the team win.
It took a village for Skyline to emerge as Open national champions for the first time since winning 14 Open in 2004.
• Ordinarily, a team would be thrilled to win AAUs and place second at Junior Nationals. But Mintonette today is wondering what might have been after missing seven serves in the second set alone and struggling in the pass game, thinks you can’t do if you expect to beat a Dallas Skyline team chock full of athletes.
“The what-ifs will keep you up,” Miller said. “It is what it is. This team won USAV’s at14 Open last year, 2 out of 3 qualifiers (Sunshine & Windy City), AAUs & finals obviously USAVs. This is a team with a lot of accolades and a promising future.”
• Houston Skyline and Arizona Storm Elite 15 Thunder tied for third to earn Bronze Medals.
Houston Skyline lost only to the top two finishers and Forza1 North 15 ONE.
“We came into Nationals focused and ready to play some of our best volleyball,” noted Houston Skyline coach Amy Burk. “We really have been right on the cusp the whole year of taking it to another level in our serve and pass game, dig to transition game, etc., and this was on display this past week. Our big emphasis with our girls was you don’t need to be perfect; we just need to win at the right time. They really locked into this mindset and found ways to mentally refocus when we were down.”
Burk said that taking Mintonette to three on Day 2 was a good reminder of how good her team was and the Day 3 loss to Forza1 North was motivation to execute at a high level in key wins over Academy 15 Diamod and Legacy to make the semifinals.
OH Halle Thompson had a stellar weekend for Houston Skyline. She passed well and was excellent attacking from front row and back. Setter Blair Thiebaud did an amazing job orchestrating the offense and was an offensive weapon herself. OH Jayden Robinson took some big time swings in huge moments, including an amazing “4-to-4” shot on match point against Legacy to clinch the medal. MB Lacy Tinnell did some great things on the block and contributed offensively. Libero Henlee Moskowicz was a big time spark in the back row coming up with some big time defensive plays in tough moments.
“It was a huge team effort for this group, which stayed focused, consistent, and found ways to execute the game plan to win,” Burk observed. “They showed just how much potential they have in the future as well. They will continue to be a force to be reckoned with throughout the nation in years to come!”
AZ Storm medaled despite coming in as the No. 17 overall seed. Jami Rolfes’ group lost only twice, to Academy Diamond on Day 3 and to Mintonette in the semifinals.
“Leading up to the event I kept telling the girls at Nationals that everyone is good and everyone has a shot to get on the podium,” Rolfes said. “We do our best at Storm to train to not only be able to handle the physical pressures of Nationals but also the mental. The girls have been working extremely hard in the gym and they figured it out this last week. They played with so much heart, grit and never gave up! Our motto this season was ‘All In.’ We knew if as a team we were ‘All In’ and worked for each other instead of individual glory we could hang with anyone. As a team, 15 Thunder stepped up, never gave up and was able to upset a few really good teams to end up on the podium with a Bronze medal.”
The entire team played solid ball all week, Rolfes stressed. but OH Madisyn Crnjac was especially clutch the last two days. Brooke Harwood had a solid week in the middle, staying active and ready, and she was particularly lethal off of one foot. Setter Lily Rolfes battled despite playing with a severe ankle injury that will soon require surgery. She was wheeled to and from the convention center in a wheelchair to keep her off of it as much as possible. Defenders Kalli Lipo and Mattea Saunders were fantastic at digging balls and keeping rallies alive. Kaiya Kearney and Sara Bowcutt both had clutch blocks and swings that were momentum changers.
“Just an all-around amazing week for this team as a whole,” Rolfes said. “I’m so proud of them!”
• Legacy, AVC CLE 15 Red, Pohaku 15-1 and WAVE 15-Brennan all made the 15 Open Gold Bracket and finished tied for fifth.
Academy Cleveland was the most surprising, as it started as the No. 34 seed in the 36-team field and was 4-3 before stunning Austin Skyline 15 Royal, the No. 5 overall seed, in a Day 3 challenge match, 15-13 in the third.
“Our focus for the last month of practice was all about playing our best volleyball at Nationals,” said AVC coach Dan Mihacevich. “ We also talked a lot about recognizing opportunities and playing fearlessly.
“Being the 34th seed created many opportunities for us to upset higher seeds. We came into the tournament with something to prove and our low seed took some pressure off since we were always the underdog.”
Academy Cleveland got a huge win over the Boilers on Day 1 to set the tone for the rest of the tournament. Hayley Wilson’s solo stuff late in the second set was a key momentum shifter.
Setter Grace Daniels was on point on Day 2 when Academy needed to win one match to advance. Londyn Stone helped AVC get by Club V 15 Ren Reed on Day 3 to advance to the Challenge phase. She had two aces, a back row kill and clutch dig as AVC rallied late to win, 15-13.
The Challenge match was an opportunity for revenge against a tall, talented Austin Skyline team that had bested AVC at the Sunshine Classic. More physical Skyline dominated the first set but MB D’Aira Whitner and defenders Kailey Snow, Abigail Buckner and Lindsay Murphy all picked it up on defense.
“We won set two, 25-23, with Shoni Carter scoring our last three points out of the middle.”
The third set was back and forth. Syd Borowy had some clutch kills and helped AVC win a crazy scramble play to tie 12-12. Stone took over after that, with two aces and a back row bomb to get AVC to the Gold Bracket.
Legacy, which had three match points in Game 2 before being eliminated by Mintonette in the semifinals at AAUs, fell in the quarterfinals at Junior Nationals despite again dominating the first set. The Michigan squad fell, 15-12, in the third.
“Obviously in those tight third set losses, little things matter,” said club director Jennifer Cottrill. “We just didn’t serve and pass aggressively or stay disciplined enough.”
Pohaku made the Gold Bracket by knocking off previously-undefeated SCVC 15Roxy, 15-13, in a Challenge match. Coach Conan Salanoa said his team gained confidence from two tough losses on Day 1 to Mintonette and Houston Skyline.
“They needed to win the next two to make sure they made it to round 2 and did so,” he explained.
After advancing second in its Day 3 pool, Salanoa said that the team played harder than it had all season in the SCVC match.
“We came out on fire everywhere and dominated the first set,” he said, “but everyone knew SCVC would respond especially with what our coaching staff considers one of the best outsides in the nation. Fortunately for us, we just played against Legacy which has another one of the best outsides, so we felt a little more prepared to defend them. Libero Julia Anisimova played lights out for us defensively. We felt like her defense frustrated the SCVC hitters. She dug almost every ball that came to her. We consistently leaned on OH Grace Martin to score points for us. She has worked her way into the conversation of the top outsides in the nation.”
Martin, pins Hailie Vaughn and Willow Weninger, as well as MB Kennedy Derks, all scored when needed for Pohaku.
“We may have been most proud of Kylie Groves, our little 5-4 setter who didn’t see the court much this season,” said Salanoa. “But when our starting setter left the team three weeks before Nationals, she stepped in to run a 5-1 and had us playing our best volleyball of the season. We put our most aggressive defender, Gabi Poeschl, behind her in right back to dig the hard line shots we knew were coming over the top.”
That WAVE made the top eight would not have been surprising at the start of the tournament, as the San Diego squad was the 11th overall seed. But the team struggled to a 2-3 mark in its first pool to barely advance, then went 1-1 in its second pool, which put WAVE into a Challenge match versus vaunted TAV 15 Black, the No. 2 overall seed to start. WAVE won in two and, the next day, took Mintonette to three in a quarterfinal match.
“We knew we weren’t playing our best but we were all trying to stay positive,” said Dean. “We were playing good enough to advance through and we really pushed hard to be at our best in the crossover.”
• Milwaukee Sting 15 Gold (15 National), Ozark Juniors 15 Elite (15 Liberty), A5 15-2 Victor (15 USA), Bakersfield 15 Judy (15 Freedom), Pipeline 15 Magic (15 American) and SynergyForce 15 Lisa (15 Patriot) took home titles in the lower divisions.
Colorado Juniors 15Sherri played 15 National and beat its original seed significantly. But CJ was playing “what might have been” after surviving the first two days only to learn that OH Bergen Waitman had injured herself the day before. She tried to go but it was hard and the team fell on Day 3 to Sting and MN Select 15-1, the latter without Waitman on the floor.
“While our goal for the season was to win a medal at Nationals, what was more important was the health of our team,” said coach Sherri Hawkins. “Even while losing the last matches of the tournament, our team made it fun as we were able to laugh and enjoy each other. In fact, to me, it looked like we had more fun losing than the other team did while winning. At the end of the day, it’s more important to me that my team continues to enjoy the game and enjoy playing with and for each other. They will have enough time later on where playing volleyball is more of a job when/if they play in college!”
• Coach Melissa Starck-Bean said that Adidas KiVA 16 Red was not ready to play when the 16 Open division at AAU Nationals got underway on June 26. The Louisville club, which was seeded No. 1 in the 73-team division, hadn’t been playing or practicing much to give nagging injuries some rest. It was, therefore, not a huge surprise when the team dropped a match on Day 1, another on Day 2 and yet another o Day 3, the latter two to a very talented Sports Performance 16 Elite squad.
Those losses, however, did not eliminate KiVA and Starck-Bean’s squad play its best ball on championship Thursday, knocking off A5 16 Gabe, Tribe 16 Elite Cardinal and Michigan Elite 16 Mizuno (which swept SPVB in a Wednesday Challenge match) for the title.
The championship match featured strong serving and passing, led by libero Kristen Simon, the tournament MVP.
“I can’t think of too many plays we didn’t execute,” Starck-Bean said. “They are a super talented team. I do think us really having to grind after Day 1 was to our advantage mentally.”
The key to pulling together for the win was taking advantage of the entire roster.
“When one was cold, someone came in and was hot,” Starck-Bean said.
In addition to Simon, who was a rock; setters Bela Haggard and Emilee Fuller were huge, especially running the middle out of system.
“That allowed us to score from the middle at will,” said Stacrk-Bean. “Elise Hart I believe had one hitting error all weekend and she serves for us and ran off strings of points, along with Addison Makun, who went off in Set 2.”
Dallas Premier 16 Black played 16 Open at AAUs and improved to 19th place after coming in seeded 37th. Coach Allison Camp said this was the team’s best statistical event of the season. OH Emma Sorensen led the team with 25 aces. Sorensen and libero Aven Crosby each passed above. 2.0 on the week. MB Cali Simmons led the team in hitting percentage at .340. OH Greer Chambless led the team in total kills with 85, while the right sides Annie Tucker and AJ Zeno combined for 98. MB Sydney Davis led the team in blocks with 16, Sorensen led the team in digs with 123, setter Kaci Wade was second on the team in aces with 20, and tallied 119 assists. Setter Taylor Johnson led in total assists with 147.”
Florida Gulfside 16 Prime won the 16 Premier Division at AAU Nationals with a 13-1 match record. For their efforts, libero Alexa Haley was named MVP, and 6-2 Outside Hitter Samantha Soderlund and 5-10 setter Milena Lopez were selected to the All-Tournament team. Sofia Locadia had a strong tournament.
• As I write this, the 16 Open and 17 Open divisions at Junior Nationals are in their third day.
There has been a huge shocker in 16 Open. Triple Crown champion Surfside PV 16 Legends, was eliminated from contention after finishing fifth in its first pool. Surfside was the No. 2 overall seed. Alamo 15 Premier, the defending age group national champions, went 0-5 in its opening pool and also was eliminated.
This morning, KiVA was eliminated after losing to Michigan Elite, the team it defeated for the AAU title.
1st Alliance 16 Gold, Drive Nation 16 Red, Northern Lights 16-1, Houston Juniors 16 Elite and Houston Skyline 16 Royal are among the top teams still in contention.
• In 17 Open, none of the favorites was eliminated after the first pool, though NKYVC 17 Tsunami, the Triple Crown champions, placing third in Pool 6 was a bit of a surprise.
This morning saw A5 17-Jing and Coast 17-1 bow out, while Dynasty 17 Black barely got to the Challenge phase.
TAV 17 Black, Drive Nation 17 Red, AAU champion OT 17 T Aaron, WACE 17-Juliana and NKYVC are among the other favorites still in contention.
Until next time …