TCS NIT: Ultra-competitive first day, plenty of college coaches on hand

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TStreet libero Giana Pellizon makes a save/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The daily double that the Triple Crown Sports Preseason National Invitational Tournament touts lived up to its billing and then some Saturday.

Not only was action intense throughout Saturday at the Calvin L. Hampton Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, but as promised hordes of Division I women’s coaches, including a Who’s Who list of decorated head coaches, roamed the center watching recruits or trying to find that next gem.

And as promised, the competitive power-pool format where the top eight teams are sent into an unseeded pool and paired off geographically (to avoid playing area teams) produced plenty of tug-of-wars.

Right out of the gates Saturday morning, COAST 18-1 went the distance with TAV 18 Black, scoring a 15-25, 25-22, 15-12 victory. And COAST played without Lucky Dog Volleyball/VolleyballMag.com girls’ high school player of the year Lexi Sun, who stayed home to rest an injury.

That turned out to be the first of six three-set matches in Pool A of the 18s division, which featured five of the preseason top teams in the country as ranked by our friends over at PrepVolleyball.com.

The 17 power pool had six of the nation’s preseason teams, including the top two in Tstreet and TAV (more on that contest in a second). The 16 power pool had five of the preseason top teams in it (again including Nos. 1 and 2), while the 15 power pool boasted seven of PrepVolleyball.com’s preseason top teams.

Maddie Parmelly goes airborne to dig/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
Maddie Parmelly of LoneStar 16 goes airborne to dig/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The Reviews: “Every game is competitive,” said COAST 18-1’s Chiara Spain, a Yale recruit.

“This tournament is different,” Spain’s teammate Brynn Chandler said. “Sometimes in tournaments you might play easier games right away and you might play down to that level. Here, the tough competition helps.”

TAV 17 Black’s Rachel Woulfe agreed about the difference between early action in qualifiers and the Triple Crown.

“This is a lot different than qualifiers,” she said. “Sometimes at a qualifier you will have a dead day where it’s not as competitive. Here we hit the ground running. The competition is great.”

Tstreet 17s coach Naseri Tumanuvao said teams definitely get their money’s worth at the event.

“We love it because we are playing the best teams in the country,” he said. “Every match is a battle.”

Tstreet standout middle blocker Karson Bacon likes the Triple Crown format for another reason.

“You get the opportunity to play a lot of teams you wouldn’t normally play,” she said. “It’s good to see how you match up against different girls across the country. You get to see where we are as a team and what we need to work on.”

Aspire 17s outside hitter Brooke Nuneviller noted there are no free lunches in Utah this weekend.

“You can’t take a match off here or you will lose,” she said.

LoneStar 16s coach Jacob Hanan said leaving the convention center 0-3 on the first day of power-pool play is a distinct possibility.

“The best teams are going at it here,” he said. “On day one you could lose all your matches because you are playing the best teams, and yet you could still come out of it and win the tournament. Playing these good teams gets you used to the competition right off the bat.”

And OTVA 15s coach Melito Eleutiza said the club will continue to make the trip from Florida if the format continues.

“We love this type of competition,” he said. “We’ll keep coming back. You are playing championship matches on your first day.”

No Sun: COAST 18-1 coach Oz Bahrambeygui noted his team was a bit shorthanded Saturday, especially playing without the highly touted Sun, who is headed to Texas.

“The kids who are out we left at home. We want to make sure they are healthy,” he said. “Lexi is hurt a little so we left her home. She’ll play next week.”

Nonetheless, the veteran coach was pleased with how his group fared against TAV.

“We came to play,” he said. “I liked that we didn’t mail it in. We played tough.”

Spain said the team had to adjust without Sun.

“We had to step up a lot without her,” she said. “We hustled as a team and made a lot of hustle plays.

Chandler added: “We probably all were a little nervous without her here, but we played a well-rounded game (against TAV).”

Heavyweight Bout Part 1: One of the first 17s power-pool matches of the day pitted Tstreet and TAV, with TAV surviving in three sets. The third set featured 12 sideouts and seven lead changes. TAV found itself down 11-8 and 12-10 in the third and came back to win, scoring the final five points on kills from Asjia O’Neal and Katie Clark, a stuff block from Adanna Rollins and a match-winning ace from Grace Klepetka.

“We lost some concentration,” TAV coach Ping Cao said. “We did start blocking better, but we can’t play that slowly against a tall team such as Tstreet. They are a good team. This was good for us. The girls work hard but we still have a long way to go. We need to keep practicing and keep working on some things. Ball control right now is a weakness for us.”

TAV ended up 3-0 in the power pool, setting itself up well in Sunday’s 32-team single-elimination championship bracket.

TAV coach Ping XXX/Ed Chan, VBshots.com
TAV coach Ping Cao/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Winner of Championships: Speaking of Cao, since he’s been a coach at Dallas-based TAV, his teams have won four national titles in seven seasons. In two of the other seasons they took a second and a third. His 17s teams last year won the USAV 17 Open junior national title.

“It’s intense,” TAV’s Woulfe said of playing for Cao. “He’s amazing. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a challenge for sure, but you improve as a team and as an individual. You have more discipline and you learn how to work together as a team on and off the court. He’s a great guy. I wouldn’t trade places for anything else in the world having him as a coach.”

Woulfe, a Southern Methodist verbal commit, said there is great anticipation in the club regarding having Cao as a coach.

“The goal growing up in TAV is to want to have Ping when you are in your 17s year,” she said. “He is the man.”

USPV reunion: Defunct United States Professional Volleyball, the last legitimate, and for a short time, successful attempt at a women’s pro indoor league, has produced many post-USPV success stories (Nicole Branagh and Jennifer Kessy on the pro beach circuit for starters), but particularly in the coaching ranks.

TAV’s Cao was part of the original USPV Dream Team touring all-star squad as an assistant coach and later was an assistant for the Grand Rapids Force.

New Stanford coach Kevin Hambly, a former U.S. women’s national team assistant under Toshi Yoshida, was an assistant coach on the 2002 USPV champion Minnesota Chill, which played in Rochester, Minn. That team featured Wiz Bachman, a former star at UCLA, who is married to current Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon.

Also seen during the tournament on Saturday were USPV alums Sanja Tomasevic (new Arizona State coach), Alma Kovaci (Army coach) and Akiko Hatakeyama (Temple University assistant).

On the Rebound: After losing to TAV in its opener in the 17 power pool, Tstreet again was taken to the limit, this time by A5 out of Atlanta. Tstreet won after overcoming an 8-4 deficit at the turn in the third set and a 12-10 hole late.

“I like our overall effort,” Tstreet coach Naseri Tumanuvao said. “They really laid out those last couple of points and put their bodies on the floor to win a point. That was awesome to see us work through that and come out on the positive side. These kids have been together since they were 14 so overall there is that continuity and energy. They treat each other well and support each other. It’s a fun group.”

Oregon recruit Bacon said there was no quit in her team against A5.

“We fought the whole time,” she said. “We were down a handful of points and we didn’t get down on ourselves. With anything, adversity happens. You have to deal with it.”

T is for Team: Aspire 17s coach Ryan Tolman saw plenty of good things in his team’s three-set victory over A5 in a power-pool contest. Aspire broke an 11-11 tie in the third and scored the final four points of the contest.

“This was a good team effort where everybody contributed,” he said. “Sometimes we rely on our stars, but when everybody steps up we are better. We have some new girls on the team this year so we’re trying to build up our chemistry.”

Another thing was easy to see when watching Aspire 17s play is its love for the game. “We have a lot of energy when we play and when we play with that energy it’s a lot of fun,” said Aspire’s Lanie Wagner, who has verbally committed to Georgia.

Nuneviller added: “When we were down we were nervous, but we didn’t play like we were nervous. We played like we wanted to win. Our energy made the difference.”

Heavyweight Bout Part 2: The other contest that pitted the top two preseason teams in the country against each other (via PrepVolleyball.com) occurred in the 16s where LoneStar defeated Sunshine.

“We had good composure,” Hanan said. “We’ve been in a lot of big matches already and because of that we have more experience when people start to punch us. We talked to the girls about what’s going on her this weekend with the big tournament and all the big teams and all the big colleges that are here. We told them to stay in the moment and not get distracted.”

Prior to LoneStar, Hanan’s team took first in the gold bracket at a Martin Luther King event and also took first and prequalified at the Tour of Texas.

“We’re doing alright,” he said. “We lost a couple games at our second tour stop (in Dallas). We’re embracing the target we have on us. We’re embracing it instead of running away from it. We’re going to work for it because we know everybody is going to give us their best game. These girls are winners.”

Block This Way: OTVA 15 Rox South Red out of Florida put on an impressive at-the-net display in its victory over KiVA in a 15 power-pool match between two division heavyweights.

“We are a pretty tall team for a 15-and-under group,” OTVA coach Eleutiza said. “This group works hard and they always come to play.”

After winning the first set 25-20, OTVA led by as much as 19-6 and 21-8 late in the second. And during that stretch the combination of Sydney Conley and Marika Virthe combined for a pair of block kills, while Rebekah Rath had two kills down the stretch.

“We passed well and played a lot of good defense,” OTVA’s Leandra Mangual Duran said.

Girls Fab 50 Unveiling Sunday: At 2:30 p.m. Mountain time Sunday, the annual VolleyballMag.com/Triple Crown Sports Girls’ Fab 50 list and 25 underclassmen to watch list will be unveiled live at the Preseason NIT here in Utah.

Those lists, two of the most anticipated and longest-running rankings in the sport, also will debut on here at www.VolleyballMag.com.

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