While the Top Select Volleyball Academy 18 Elite girls from Orlando did not have what coach Blake Rawlins would consider the greatest of regular seasons, hope still abounded heading into the USA Volleyball 18s Open junior nationals.
“We didn’t have what I would consider to be a great year,” Rawlins said. “We didn’t do quite as well at the qualifiers and other bigger tournaments, but we always were right there.
“We’d lose tight games because of errors here and there. If we cleaned up our side of the court, we were right there. It was not so much that the other teams were so much better than us, it was just that we needed to clean up our side.”
The team was active on the tournament circuit, playing in Daytona twice and Orlando before heading to Nashville for the Music City Qualifier and then to Utah for the prestigious Triple Crown NIT. The Boston and MEQ qualifiers followed before the JVA World Challenge. As a sampling, Top Select was seventh in Nashville, third in Boston and 25th at MEQ. It finished tied for 25th in 18 Elite at Triple Crown with a 3-4 record.
Rawlins made an observation right after the JVA World Challenge in early April in Louisville.
“It looked like 18s open at Junior Nationals would be wide open,” he said. “I told the girls if we play good, clean volleyball for three days we legitimately have a shot to win this thing. The kids were with me and knew we had a shot.”
It turned into more than just a shot. Top Select cleaned things up on its side and walked out of the Anaheim Convention Center as 18 Open national champions.
But Top Select’s beginning was anything but auspicious at junior nationals. Top Select dropped a three-setter to Idaho Crush 18 right out of the gates.
“We gave it away,” Rawlins said. “It stung. We were up in that third set and had a chance to close it out. I told the girls and I was firm about it. This might come back to bite us in the butt, but if we want to win this thing we have to tighten it up. I kept telling the girls I believed it was our time.”
Top Select turned it around in pool play with successive wins against MN Select and A4 on the first day and then split, losing to Texas Tornados and beating EXCEL 18, which afforded it a bye Saturday night in the challenge bracket. KC Power and Vision 18 Gold had to square off first at 6 p.m., with the winner playing Top Select two hours later for the right to advance to the gold bracket.
“I had a video on KC Power,” Rawlins said. “I video everybody and we watch a lot of film on opponents. We had a good game plan going in against them. I thought this was our toughest match of the tournament. Power is very well-coached and they have good middles. It was high-level volleyball with a lot of battles and long rallies and good defensive plays by both sides. It’s how high-level volleyball should be.”
Top Select won 24-26, 25-23, 15-13.
“It was the turning point for us,” said Rawlins. “Now, we can go win this thing.”
Gold play started the next morning with a matchup with San Gabriel Elite.
“We had videoed them and watched the video that morning so we had a game plan going on how to defend them and run our offense against them,” Rawlins said. “We did very well serving and passing.”
Top Select outlasted San Gabriel in three to move to the semifinals against TAV.
“KC Power and San Gabriel had more physical volleyball players than we did,” Rawlins said. “We have one physical player (Shannon Crenshaw). We served and passed real well. We had our opponents in medium pass situations that made it easier to defend. When we pass and defend well we can move the ball around well.”
TAV provided another physical challenge that Top Select met head-on to the tune of a 25-22, 25-23 win, which earned it a spot in the national final.
“TAV was the most physical team we played all weekend,” Rawlins said. “They have seven or right players who are physical and big and can get over the net. We had a game plan where we would go in and hit a lot of high hand and attack the block and make the setter or off-blocker play. We did an unbelievable job doing that. We served TAV well. They couldn’t set their middles as much. They ran their slide well, but we defended it. We create opportunities for us in the transition game.
“We got down big at one point at like 9-2 and 15-9 and I think they were up 23-18 at one point. We kept our composure and kept working. We had lots of time to win it. We didn’t panic and kept serving well and came out with the win.”
Orlando Top Select 18s on the podium
That set up the final against SA Magic.
“The finals match was funny,” Rawlins said. “We played SA Magic at Triple Crown in Salt Lake in February and we lost to them 18-16 in the third. We had a chance to win that one in two and had two match points in the third set and gave it away on our errors. I would gladly give them that match because we wound up winning this one 18-16 in the last set.
“The girls showed a lot of character and guts. We moved on from the next point. Win or lose points, we were moving on and preparing ourselves for the next one and to play defense or run our offense. A lot of girls played great volleyball.”
Rawlins lauded the work of setter Grace Ryan and right-side Mattison McKissock (headed to Georgia Tech). McKissock, the team’s other setter, was asked to switched to the right side.
“We needed to play a 5-1 to win and we needed her defense on the right side and for her to be an attacker for us,” Rawlins explained. “Hats off to Matti. It was her last tournament and she took one for the team and played right side and blocked well and played great backrow defense and served well. She scored when we needed her to. I cannot say enough about a kid like that. She knew it was more important to do the role we asked her.”
Youthful middles Briana Holmes and Logan Garcia also came up big.
“They had never played open before and did great,” Rawlins said.
Libero Peyton Garrison was a stalwart in the back row.
“Peyton is a junior who did a fabulous job,” Rawlins said. “She passed well and dug well and covered well. She was really consistent for us.”
Outsides Crenshaw and Johanna Shamley also produced on the left side.
“They were unbelievable,” Rawlins said. “We set them a lot. I told Shannon every day we knew she would get the ball, but she never tired. She hit it hard and did everything for us.”
Rawlins said while he considered the field wide open for the 18 title, that didn’t mean the competition was lacking.
“This was an amazing run for us,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them. It was a cool run, but we believed we could do it. We knew there wasn’t one team where you would go, ‘Oh man, they are going to win it all.’ We knew there were five, six, seven, eight really good teams, but if anybody played well then anybody could beat anybody. We matched up with the teams we played really well.”
Crenshaw was named the MVP of the tournament and was joined on the all-tournament team by Ryan and Shamley.
Ryan (going to Arkansas), Crenshaw (Washington), Shamley (Holy Cross) and McKissock (Georgia Tech) comprise four of the five returning players from last year. Claire Meier (Wofford) did not play after tearing an ACL in January.
“Shannon took that gym over,” said Rawlins. “I’m biased, I guess, but I really thought she was the best player in the gym all weekend. She did so much for us. They tried to serve her a lot to get her out of rhythm and she dug it for us and served and blocked well. She did it all at a very high level for three days.”
Holmes (Samford), Garcia (Flagler College), outside Alix Polk (Sacred Heart), outside Sydney Ellis (Emory Riddle) and 2020 libero Lilly Gunter (committed to Mississippi State) were newcomers along with uncommitted players Lauren Musante (S-OH-RS) and libero Garrison (libero).
One interesting aspect on this team is the fact Crenshaw, Ryan and Garrison did not play high-school volleyball in this past fall.
“They decided to train with me and treat it like a spring season in college,” Rawlins said. “They lifted weights and trained with me. We practiced one day a week and then had individual position training. It helped get Shannon more physical and helped prepare her for Washington. She added 2.5 inches to her vertical, which is a really big deal for her this year. It’s a big thing when kids decide to not play in high school and decide to train and get stronger and take a little break. It showed with Shannon on our run to the finals.”
Rawlins said he would take the team’s so-called mediocre regular season any day of the year if what happened in Anaheim occurred every year.
“We train with the end in mind,” he said. “The end in mind is trying to win junior nationals. I would take this mediocre season every year if we can go in and have a chance to win the thing. It all worked out for these girls. They ended their careers winning a national title. They never wavered and they kept working to get better. They made up their minds to be great and it’s awesome for them that it all worked out. I’m so proud of them.”