There’s a youth movement taking place in Muncie, Ind., and it was on full display Sunday morning during the 18 Open championship bracket of the Triple Crown Sports’ National Invitational Tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Munciana 18 Samurai has a lineup in 18s that features two 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old. The team advanced to the semifinals Monday morning against Skyline 18 Royal.
“We didn’t look like we are young,” Munciana coach and club director Mike Lingenfelter said with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s like being on a double rollercoaster with your hands up in the air and you are enjoying it and other times it’s like you are on the rollercoaster and nauseous and holding on for dear life.”
Particularly impressive in Sunday’s win over Webfoot was a two-play sequence in the second set where middle Bailey Western (headed to Northern Kentucky) and Natalie Ravenell (Butler) teamed for a block kill and Nia Robinson (Northwestern) followed with a solo of her own that gave Munciana, which has 11 players committed to play in college, a commanding 19-10 lead.
“We’re getting more out of our middles than we have,” Lingenfelter said. “Our transition to the middle was strong enough to where we could score on the outside. We’ve had a good run so far. We’ve had a couple hiccups with the age, but it’s been a good year. It’s all about age. We’re a lot like wine. You have to let it age, but I’d like to speed up the process a little. I’m not a big fan of drinking vinegar.”
Robinson admitted the age aspect of the team has presented challenges.
“Most of us are still 17,” the senior said. “We’re working with the youth. It can be hard working out the kinks in pressure games, but we’ve done that. So far it’s been good. At first because of all the different age ranges we didn’t know each other well. In the first tournament we didn’t really even know each other’s names. We’re getting to know each other’s style of play and that has helped us now. We’re getting in a groove. It’s been fun playing with these girls.”
Non-seniors on the team include Nebraska commits setter Kenzie Knuckles and defensive specialist Megan Miller, along with setter Jonni Parker (Ohio State) and Class of 2020 6-4 setter Melanie Shaffmaster (Minnesota verbal). Outside-defensive specialist Mallory Hernandez is in the class of 2018 and is not committed yet.
Working their magic: One of the tenets of the power-pool format from Saturday’s action was to keep teams separated geographically so they weren’t seeing the same foes from their area.
But once the 32-team tournament format hit Sunday, that didn’t quite apply. Take the case of San Antonio Magic 17 Elite, which opened the morning with a victory over Texas Tornados 17 Mizuno.
“That was the third time this year we beat Tornados,” Magic coach Albert Trevino said. “We were down in the second set here by five and came back and won by two which was good to see. We were able to side out quick and maintain everything from the service line. If we serve well our blocking will get better and we will hit better.”
Coming into the tournament, Magic had only lost to TAV and Alamo, a pair of in-state foes.
“Early on we’ve done pretty good. We’ve limited the amount of games we’ve had to play,” Trevino said. “We’ve won a lot in two.”
And Trevino’s crew is thrilled to be in Salt Lake City, mainly because the schedule has, for the most part, non-Texas teams on it.
“I love that every team we’re going to see is different from what we see in Texas,” he said. “Here it’s a bigger and faster ball. In Texas it’s high and loopy because everybody is so big. All the games here have been competitive.”
Trevino has a long history with this current group. “We’ve had this group since they were 13s,” he said. “Four of the kids have stayed with us through the whole process. They work hard and their even better together.”
Magic setter Emily Dewalt (Texas State commit) has no complaints about the schedule this holiday weekend. “We get to compete against the best of the best,” she said. “It’s only going to help us going into the qualifier season and hopefully in the long runs at nationals. We’re playing really well right now. Everybody is doing their part to be successful. We all get along really well and work for each other and play for each other. It’s a very special team.”
Dewalt also is pleased to see non-Texas teams starting across the net at her.
“We play the same Texas teams five or six times a year,” she said. “It’s great to see different teams.”
Taking the sting out of a loss: Milwaukee Sting 18 Gold started play in Salt Lake City with four wins in a row but slipped in a morning loss to KU’IKAHI 18 Wahine in the second round of championship bracket play.
“We’ve done a very good job this year of keeping our composure,” Sting coach Scott Blackmon said. “I hate saying it but it feels like we are turning the corner in terms of our maturity. But 27 unforced errors is not going to do it (against KU’IKAHI). It was a lesson learned. It’s a fun group and it’s a young group that has a lot of energy. Even the older kids still want to learn a lot.”
Blackmon lauded the play of 6-3 middle-right side Ellie Kaat, who will play at Truman State. Blackmon is in her first year of playing club volleyball after being primarily a basketball player.
“She was big into basketball most of her life,” he said. “She was in every match here yesterday and she’s getting a lot better. It’s the same with our team. All we can do is keep getting a little better every day.”
This is Sting’s first time playing in the Triple Crown event.
“All I can say is we’re glad we are here,” Blackmon said.
Just get it done: Another 18s team that impressed Sunday morning was the K2 Adidas Jota squad from Louisville, Tennessee, which scored a 25-15, 26-24 win over NPJ 18-1 National in its second match of the day.
“We find ways to win despite not playing our best volleyball,” K2 coach Jay Hames said. “What I like about this group is we play together. They have been together a long time. And because of that they play big points well. The key is to not be put into situations where we have to play that big point. We find ways to win.”
K2, which lost in the 18 quarterfinals to Skyline 18 Royal in three, features a pair of standouts in senior Chesney McClellan (Nebraska) and junior setter Nicklin Hames. McCellan was named to the VolleyballMag.com/Triple Crown Sports Girls’ Fab 50 list (revealed at the tournament Sunday afternoon), while Hames appeared on the 25 Underclassmen to watch list.
“It’s definitely our setter,” said Jay Hames. “She makes the plays. She has a great court sense. We’ve been good on our first contact. We handle the serve-receive well. That keeps us in system and allows us to run our offense.”
Nicklin Hames, also committed to Nebraska, agrees that the team is able to function well when put in tough situations. “We play well when we get into tight points,” she said. “In the end we want to win and that helps us come out on top. A lot of us have played together for six years and we play together as a team.”
Jay Hames said he’s a big fan of the Triple Crown format.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s why we flow out here. We’re seeing where we are at in February. This level only helps us do that. It exposes things we are not doing well and at the same time what we are doing well. The main thing you have to do here is compete in every match.”
Nicklin Hames added: “We’ve seen some tough competition. It’s what we came here to do. It’s been fun playing these tough teams. It challenges you.”
Mainland moxy: Another fun match to watch Sunday in 18s saw Munciana get past KU’IKAHI 18 Wahine in the 18 championship quarterfinals by a 25-13, 25-19 count.
The Hawaii-based squad fought off two match points in the second half, but could not get over the top.
“We hung in there,” KU’IKAHI coach Kainoa Obrey said. “I’m proud of them for that. Munciana is solid, they are quick, have big arms and are aggressive at the net. For us we have to play defense and ball handle. We took some better swings in that second set.”
Senior Kira Morikawa added: “It’s the little things that make a difference. Munciana is a good team that is coached well and plays a really fast tempo. For us it’s about stringing together all the little things.”
Morikawa noted team chemistry has made life a lot easier in the practice gym.
“All the girls are great individual people,” she said. “We’ve grown closer off the court and that translates on the court. We’re all on the same page. “
This was the KU’IKAHI’s second time in the Triple Crown event.
“We don’t get to see that style of play too often,” Obrey said. “We had some opportunities against Munciana and let some points slip away.”
Obrey said this year’s team features a 50-50 split between returning players and newcomers.
“We’re about six and six. It’s a good mix of 18s and 17s,” he said. “We’re excited about this team. We have a lot of the top players locally from Hawaii. Now we want to get them ready for the rest of the season and playing in a tournament like this is tremendous for that.”
And the travel wasn’t all that bad.
“It’s just under six hours and it was a direct flight,” Obrey said.
And what about the Salt Lake City weather that has hovered in the 40s and 50s?
“It’s cold, but we’re doing pretty well with it,” said Morikawa, who is headed to Oklahoma. “We brought all our big jackets. We came here to play volleyball and that’s what we’re doing. The competition is unreal. Every team is good in certain aspects. At home we don’t face this kind of play. It’s nice to see these types of teams. It’s good preparation for us.”
Obrey said the team, which has eight players on its travel roster who have committed to colleges, will compete in one qualifier this spring in Spokane, Wash.
President’s Day primer: Monday is the grand finale in Salt Lake. In 18s, Munciana and Skyline face off in one semifinal at 8 a.m., while A4 Volley 18-Purple and Top Select 18 Elite Blake play in the 9 a.m. semifinal. The two winners play for the title at 12:30 p.m.
In 17s, the two semifinals feature Skyline 17 Royal against Idaho Crush 17U at 8 a.m. and Tstreet 17 Naseri against TAV 17 Black at 9 a.m. The two winners play at 10 a.m. for the title.
In 16s, Sunshine 16 Westside faces either Aspire 16 Rox or LoneStar 16 Red in one semifinal at 8 a.m., while A5 Mizuno 16-1 plays Colorado Juniors 16 Shannon at 8 a.m. The title match is set for 10:30 a.m.
And in 15s, OT 15 S. Rox Red and TAV 15 Black are one semifinal at 8 a.m., while Wave 15 Brennan and Skyline 15 Royal play at 9 a.m. The final is at 10 a.m.
The 14 championship match already is set with Sunshine 14 Westside facing TAV 14 Black at 8:30 a.m.
The 14s, 16s and 18s title matches will be broadcast on ESPN3 Monday.