Volleyball

Tawa’s Club Volleyball Dots: Qualifying smiles and Covid sniffles

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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. Look for Dots every Tuesday through Junior Nationals this summer:

• The final 18s national qualifier of the season occurred in Spokane at PNQ Saturday through Monday. NPJ 18 Forefront was the favorite in the 23-team 18 Open field, and the top 10 team from Oregon (and Idaho and Washington) absolutely dominated, going 9-0 to win and qualify for Junior Nationals 31 days from today in Columbus.

NPJ was the 18 Open favorite in Spokane and played flawlessly

NPJ did not drop a set. A lot of the credit for that goes to the team’s seven on-court stars, including setter Alexis Haury and pins Alex Acevedo and Kyleene Filimaua, who are constants. But coach Adam Ellis wants you to know that the team does not win PNQ without the six players making up his second unit.

“You see them on our bench, and they’re providing the best energy and support you could ever ask for,” he said. “They make things fun. They keep things loose. They make a difference and we would not be the team we are without them. We are 13 strong. They express joy, and excitement every time the team does something well. They constantly encourage the players that are on the floor, and they stay ready to add their value on the court when their name is called. They are ready to change things up as needed, and they never stop making an impact whether they are on the court or not. They make each other better. They make us better. Tessa Zimmerman (Southern Oregon), Kayleigh Carpenter (Boise State), Maddie Corpe (University of Portland), Brooksie Isham (Air Force), and Taelyn Bently (Uncommitted, 2025) help prepare and get better every day in practice. We face some of the best competition every day in practice, and it’s this group of players who typically get little to no playing time on the big stage. However, they are ones who are just as deserving of all the accolades and praise, because they are the ones who help get us ready to play on tournament weekends.”

Now, as for the how and why on the court in Spokane, here’s associate head coach Mike Gee with the explanation and why NPJ could be a podium threat in Columbus:

“This team just wants to win, and we’ve embraced it. They came into the weekend with high aspirations and a lot of things they that they wanted to accomplish. They wanted to qualify and earn a bid outright; they didn’t want it by trickle down. They did that. They wanted to win the whole thing. They did that. They wanted to go undefeated. They did that. They wanted to go undefeated without dropping a set. They did that. This team wanted to play with pressure, because they know they need more of that to help prepare them for the Nationals, so we embraced it all.

“After facing a handful of different challenges on Day 1, we met the next day for our pregame meal and team meeting. In that meeting, we talked about how our real opponent this weekend is not any particular team, per se. Rather, our main opponent was the tournament. The tournament was going to try and throw everything at us to try to prevent us from beating it. So, heading into Day 2, and for the rest of the way, we focused on playing against the tournament. The unspoken motto became ‘what’s next,’ instead of ‘who’s next.’

“The tournament threw a number of different challenges our way, including tough teams with good players who played well against us. And we loved it. We wanted to be prepared for as many different obstacles as possible, and we discussed the potential for there to be challenges that we can’t foresee. To achieve the things this team set out to accomplish, they would need to stay locked in for three long days. The tournament was our opponent. The tournament was the game we were playing. And we just wanted to beat the game. We wanted to learn how to win a three-day tournament. And to prepare for some of the other goals that this team has, we needed certain reps this weekend, and we got them.”

Note: NPJ Salem 16 National won 16 USA and earned a bid. NPJ Salem 17 National took 2nd in 17 USA and also earned a bid. It was an all-around great weekend for North Pacific Juniors.

• Rage Westside 18 Michelle, a NorCal squad; and OJVA 18-1 Gold, another Oregon team; finished 2-3 to take home the final Open bids earned at qualifiers.

Rage, which finished third in 18 USA at Windy City, made this venture into Open a successful one. Michelle Brazil’s team, which fell from contention on Day 2 at Music City because of one bad loss, won all three of its pools at PNQ to ensure its bid.

“We had a monster weekend from my OHs Emma Donley and Audrey Liddle,” Brazil said. “They did things in every part of the game: hitting with power and precision, playing great defense, and serving incredibly tough. Libero Jillian Massenat held down the back row with her disciplined, yet fearless, defense. Fran [Hoeft] set deceptively and shut down opposing teams OHs with her blocking, not to mention her scrappy defense. MBs Eliza Sharp and Allie Caldwell had a big weekend as well,  blocking and providing clutch offense. Perhaps most impressively, Kiki Fortenberry was awesome in three different positions. Her main spot is as our deceptive undersized RS who can block and swing with the best of them, but she also had to step in as a left side and setter at points during the weekend!”

• With all 16 national qualifiers complete at the 18s level, here are 42 of the 48 teams you will see in 18 Open in Columbus. They are listed in alphabetical order:

1st Alliance, A4, A5, Absolute, Adversity, AJV, AVC, AZ EVJ, AZ Revolution, AZ Storm, Circle City, Club V, Coast, CUVC, Dallas Skyline, Drive Nation, East Coast Power, Elevation, FC Elite, Gainesville Juniors, Houston Skyline, MAVS, Metro, Milwaukee Sting, Minnesota Select, Mintonette. Northern Lights, NPJ, Ocala Power, Oregon Juniors, OTVA 18J, Paramount, Premier Nebraska, Rage Westside, Sunshine, SynergyForce, TAV, Triangle, Tribe, Tstreet, VC United, WAVE.

1st Alliance topped a tough field to stamp themselves as 16 OPen national championship contenders

That leaves six slots for At-Large teams, which are those teams seeking a spot in the 18 Open field that did not qualify through national qualifiers. They are those not-yet-qualified teams with the best resumes in terms of record against the Open field, record versus the other At-Large candidates and qualifier finishes.

Who will they be?

• We have kept an active weekly ranking of the nation’s top 25 18s teams. Twenty-one of the top 25 are committed to 18 Open at Junior Nationals.

Two, Munciana Samurai and FaR Out, do not play in qualifiers and would be ineligible for At-Large status.

Two more, Houston Juniors and Legacy, would appear to be candidates for At-Large bids, as well as Mizuno Long Beach, Alamo, KC Power and KiVA.

Now, I haven’t done the analysis to determine those most deserving of At-Large status. I’ll be as curious as you to see how “the committee” decides; I’m just saying the above six all are viable candidates.

• With the 18s all but set, the focus will shift naturally to the other age groups we cover; however, it is one month too soon to begin thinking about who’s in peril not to qualify for Junior Nationals in Chicago, which starts at the end of June. MEQ, PNQ, Big South, Show Me, NEQ, Lone Star, Windy City, Salt Lake City Showdown and Far Westerns – nine of the 12 national qualifiers — all have one or more age groups still to go, starting this weekend with MEQ 15s, PNQ 15s, Big South 15s through 17s and Show Me 15s through 17s. Holy 15s dilution batman!

The only national qualifiers fully wrapped for 2023 are Red Rock Rave, Sunshine and Northern Lights.

• This past weekend, PNQ held its 17s and 16s qualifiers as well.

Vision 17 Gold won the 30-team 17 Open division at PNQ. Katy Ripp’s team, which features excellent defense, good setting and strong lefts, overcame a Day 2 pool play loss to win out.

Vision found a bid awaiting in Spokane, thanks to great work on the pins, by setter Maya Baker and libero Whitney Wallace

Austin Juniors 17 Adidas and SCVC 17 Roxy also finished top three to join Vision in receiving tickets to Junior Nationals.

Idaho Crush 16 Bower, Coast 16 Luis and Oaks VBC 16 Gold claimed the top three spots in the 24-team 16 Open division. The Open bid was the first for Oaks as a club. Oaks 16 Gold has two fantastic athletes, OH Eliana Ursua and MB Manaiaa Ogbechie.

• At the Northern Lights National Qualifier in Minneapolis, bid winners were determined in 16 Open and 15 Open.

In 16 Open, 1st Alliance 16 Gold cemented itself as a national championship contender by besting a field that included four teams ranked among the top six nationally, plus two more in the top 25. Tish Samolinski’s team, which came in ranked fourth nationally (according to me) finished 9-0 and got to face the other three, top-6 teams. 1st Alliance twice defeated No. 3 Nebraska ONE 16 Synergy, one in three sets; beat No. 5 Houston Skyline 16 Royal in two tight sets and outlasted No. 6 Drive Nation 16 Red, 15-11 in the third.

“It was a great weekend with a tough field of competition,” Samolinski said. “Over the past month our team has been really focused and working hard to improve on all areas of our game. Days 2 and 3 were certainly challenging pools, especially Day 3, when the 1, 2 and 3 seeds entering the tournament ended up in the same gold medal pool.  The girls entered the day really calm and focused, and we knew had to play our best volleyball to make it out of our pool.

“Our offense was led by Hannah Kenny, who kept us in system feeding Addy Horner and Abby Vander Wal balls on each pin. Abby Vander Wal totaled 112 kills, hitting a .497 on the weekend. Addy followed with 47 kills, hitting .384. The biggest improvement came in regards to our blocking and defense. Our block did a great job setting up so our defense could pass and keep us in system all weekend. Addy Horner, Hannah Kenny and MaTaia Lawson were able to get on a lot of long service runs to help us control the game.”

1st Alliance came across Nebraska ONE in the championship match, a rematch from the second day pool match that the Chicago club needed three to win.

“Nebraska ONE is one of the most efficient 16 Open teams I have coached against and I felt like our girls knew we had to play efficiently and aggressively in order to win,” Samolinski said. “We battled back and forth in Set 1 and got that first win, which gave us momentum leading into Set 2. Set 2 was the best volleyball I have seen us play all season long. It was a complete team effort and the team played with a ton of energy and sense of ease. I am really proud of the girls and the vibe they had all weekend.”

Nebraska ONE its first five matches on its way to second place.

Nebraska ONE showed off a more balanced attack in 16 Open and had great success

“We had another great weekend at Northern Lights, finishing 2nd place, and earning our bid in 16 Open,” said coach Christina Boesiger, whose eighth-grade daughter, Malorie Boesiger, is the team’s quarterback. “We put a lot of pressure on teams with our aggressive serve. Malorie Boesiger led us with 17 ace serves. Most of the tournament we were able to run our fast tempo offense and Malorie did a good job of getting our hitters in a lot of one on ones. Keri Leimbach led our backcourt defense with 93 digs. We have been working on still running a fast tempo offense in transition. Our outside hitters, Anna Jelinek and Mattie Dalton, were super explosive and had a quick transition to do that. I love that we keep getting better each tournament. These girls are fierce competitors and work extremely hard in practice.”

Premier Nebraska 16 Gold won the third and final bid.

• Legacy 15-1 Adidas, ranked third nationally, according to me, overcame a Day 2 loss to Premier Nebraska 15 Gold and a tough field to win 15 Open at Northern Lights.

Legacy showed at Northern Lights that it has the athletes to go all the way at Junior Nationals

“The loss to Premier definitely jolted us,” said coach Jennifer Cottrill. “We were disappointed in our focus and intensity in that match and were able to get re-centered before Day 3. The team was feeling a lot of pressure to qualify and we were breaking down in tough situations. Day 3, we were able to mentally get over that hurdle and able to come up with the wins over Michio and Triangle in the 3-team Gold Pools. Once we knew we secured a bid, we really saw the entire team relax and be able to compete at an extremely high level. 6-2 MB Kayla Nwabueze dominated the match against Tribe, scoring 13 of our team’s 25 points in the 2nd set and hitting 0.8125 for the match. In the finals against Houston Skyline, 6-2 OH Gabby DiVita had 5 kills in the 3rd set and 16 in the match! Setter Eva Long was elite dishing the ball and running our offense. Libero Meredith Martin was a rock in serve-receive and was all over the court defensively.”

Houston Skyline 15 Royal and Tribe 15 Elite Cardinal finished 2-3 and also earned bids.

• I checked my archives for the last pre-pandemic content I published at PrepVolleyball.com back in 2000. Turns out it was national club rankings in the 15s division. The freshmen back then are seniors today. Here were those rankings. Do you recognize any of the players starring in the club game currently?

1. Legacy 15-1 (Michigan)
Pre-season ranking: 4
JVA Rock ‘N Rumble. First. Central Zone Invitational. First. Triple Crown NIT. First again. What an incredible start for Legacy, which is 23-0, with 10+ wins against teams that are top 10 worthy! OHs Harper Murray and Nina Horning and libero Kaitlyn Hoffman were key to the team’s success during winning time in Kansas City.

2. Alamo 15 Premier (Texas)
Pre-season ranking: 15
A very tall and very balanced team, Alamo has forged a 33-2 record so far this season, dominating the Tour of Texas. Its only losses came to No. 1 Legacy in the Triple Crown championship match, 15-12 in the third; and to Houston Juniors at the Tour of Texas, a loss since avenged. Head coach Debbie Gonzalez said she does not like to dole out individual praise, as teamwork is required for success not individual play, but libero Alyssa Manitzas has been a foundational player for this team. “She stayed and played with her own age and has been the captain, leader and anchor of this team,” the coach said. “She controls the back row to allow her other teammates to do what they do best for this team.”

3. Tstreet 15-Chris (California)
Pre-season ranking: 2
The 2019 14 Open national champions have started the 2020 season 15-2, their only two losses to No. 1 Legacy. It hasn’t been all smooth, though, as a couple of wins at the NIT could have gone either way. MB Lily Dwinel had a great Triple Crown event. She hit .500 for the weekend and .750 on Day 3, when the competition was strongest.

4. KC Power 15-1 (Kansas)
Pre-season ranking: 6
Power showed off its overhauled roster at Triple Crown and the team went 6-2 on its way to a T-3. S Ella Swindle and RS Ava Testrake shined on the final day. Testrake, OH Reagan Fox and MB Alli Olson were very good for Power last week, which was healthy and flu-free last week for Power League and did not drop a set in wins over tough MAVS and Topeka Impact to improve to 24-4 for the season.

5. Nebraska Elite 15 Revolution (Nebraska)
Pre-season ranking: 5
Revolution is 20-3 on the year after winning the 16 Open division at the President’s Day Classic in Omaha without dropping a set. The team’s three losses have been to top 20 type teams in the 17s and 18s division. “Destiny Simpson has been an offensive force in the front row and back row,” said coach Dr. Andrew Wehrli. “We have new middles this year and they are finally starting to connect with our setters.”

6. OTVA Jacksonville 15 Will (Florida)
Pre-season ranking: 27
Setter Jessica Shattles and middles Zeta Washington and Ally Cavanaugh helped OT Will to an impressive T-5 at Triple Crown, which included wins over A5, Lions and KiVA. Said head coach Will Berdecia: “The team has five returning players and six new players. It has been very interesting to watch how the returning players and new players were able to come together as a team so fast before Triple Crown. This ability to quickly work through the ‘getting to know you’ phase of team building helped lead us to placing 5th at that tournament. This group of athletes has quickly grown very close and it has had a positive impact on their performance on the court.”

7. Adidas KiVA 15 Red (Kentucky)
Pre-season ranking: 3
KiVA followed up a strong Triple Crown Performance (T-7; wins over KC Power and WAVE) with a strong weekend at the Mideast Power League, which included a sweep of KiVA 16 Red. The team’s go-to hitter, Nya Bunton, hit .500 in that win with two big-time stuff blocks. “The past two weekends our team is really starting to find their way and play together,” said coach Charlotte Jewell.

8. Drive Nation 15 Red (Texas)
Pre-season ranking: HM
Drive Nation took players off of its own 14s team from last year and those from TAV, Dallas Skyline and Madfrog to form this year’s team, which finished T-5 at Triple Crown with a 6-2 mark. OH Lauryn Hill and RS Samantha Hoppes had key Game 3 kills versus Northern Lights to help in its final match in KC.  Coached by Kevin Anderson, this team has taken hits in its home state (as has everyone not named Alamo), but with two wins over Dallas Skyline, two over Madfrog, one over TAV and one over Houston Juniors, the team has done enough to merit its top 10 national standing.

9. Mizuno Northern Lights 15-1 (Minnesota)
Pre-season ranking: 10
Lights’ revamped roster held up well in its first big test of 2020, as the team tied for seventh at Triple Crown. Antonio Amador’s team, which is 23-7 overall, did lose five times in Kansas City, but three losses, to teams ranked ahead of it here, came in three sets. Libero Sydney Jaynes, RS Sydney Schnichels and setter Stella Swenson were among the standouts.

10. Dallas Skyline 15 Royal (Texas)
Pre-season ranking: 7
Take away the second Tour of Texas stop, where Skyline had five players out injured or sick and went 0-5, and Mark Flores’ team is 20-4, including 8-1 at the Triple Crown NIT with a loss only to Northern Lights. The team has four players who drive 90 minutes or more one way to practice.

• How many of those teams are top 25 as 18s? It’s hard to sustain excellence for four years, especially with few core groups staying together as 18s, thanks to club switching and attrition from early enrollment, but four of the top 10 then are in my current top 25.

Drive Nation is No. 1, which may be due to the “Ping Cao” effect in bringing top 17s from all over Dallas to the club.

OTVA Jacksonville is No. 12. The most successful team in OTVA Jacksonville history brought this core group together young and managed to keep it all four years. Impressive.

Dallas Skyline is No. 18, underscoring again how talent-rich Dallas is.

Legacy stands at No. 22, a tremendous achievement given how many talented players left early for college, including Gatorade NPOY Harper Murray.

Until next time …

Tawa’s Club Volleyball Dots: Qualifying smiles and Covid sniffles Volleyballmag.com.

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