Daily Dots (April 29, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)
• We’re on to the 18 USA division at 18s Junior Nationals in Columbus. Like 18 Open and 18 National, the field consisted of 48 teams starting in eight pools of six. After two days, the field is pared to 24, with eight, three-team Challenge brackets that start with second- and third-place pool finishers facing off and then playing the top pool finishers to determine the eight teams into the Gold bracket quarterfinals.
Unlike 18 National, where all bids are determined by region, in 18 USA, 40 of the 48 bids were actually earned at the 16 national qualifiers.
• Looking at the pools, three of the eight top seeds won their pools and three more finished second. One finished third and JJVA 18N Daniel, the No. 4 overall seed, lost its final two matches by 16-14 Game 3 scores to fall from an advancing position.
It actually was better to be seeded second in a pool, as all eight advanced to the Challenge phase. Four placed first, another three finished second and HP Illinois 18 Elite survived a three-way tie at 2-3 to win the tiebreaker and advance.
East Carolina Juniors 18 Premier, which won Pool 4, was the lowest seed (36th initially) to advance. Four 3-seeds and four 4-seeds also made it to the top half.
Finishing first in a pool proved very beneficial in the Challenge phase, as seven of the pool winners advanced to the Gold bracket quarterfinals. Only Vegas Aces 18UnderArmour, the No. 5 seed overall to start; was able to win twice on Saturday evening to remain in contention. Ruben Herrera’s team knocked out Forza1 18UA, the top finisher in Pool 6, in a three-set struggle that ended with Vegas winning 15-13 in the third.
• MichioChicago 18 National expected to be highly ranked after winning two qualifiers. Brandon McGinnis’ team was tabbed by the seeding committee as the team to beat, which was earned and appreciated, but meant that the team of nine had a target on its back to play with from the first match to the last.
Michio, a Japanese name meaning “man with strength of three thousand,” played well despite the pressure, and went through pool play unbeaten. Coast 18-2 and Revolution PGH 18 White, the two other teams to come out of Pool 1, extended Michio to three games, but the Chicago team played strong when it had to in order to prevail. Michio then swept a determined SKEVA 18 Blue to reach the Gold bracket.
“We got to the Gold bracket with our ball control and defense,” McGinnis said. “We wore teams down and capitalized on opportunities. Our offensive contribution was spread throughout all of our attackers and we didn’t make many unforced errors. A lot of credit to our setter for running a great offense all tournament.”
Three tough opponents remained on Sunday and Michio was up for the test. The team swept Texas Image 18 Asics Black in the quarters to clinch a medal, then snuck by TAV 18 Blue in a three-set semifinal before outlasting Vegas Aces, 26-24 in Game 2, to complete a championship match sweep.
“We did not shy away when big games or big points presented themselves,” McGinnis said. “We rose above and beyond in those moments. It was not easy but we dug deep and overcame adversity all weekend.”
Setter Nikki Jones was named tournament MVP. She set a consistent offense all weekend and was strong defensively both at the net and in the back row.
There were moments, however, when every single player stepped up and made an impact when needed.
“My two six-rotation outsides, Emma Best and Lulu Torres, are rocks to this team,” McGinnis said. “They stepped up to bail us out of plenty of situations all weekend and all season. The two middles, Ellie Kurpeikis and Katie Jackowski, worked hard all weekend to score both offensively and defensively while blocking. My libero, Anna Jaworowski, was a ball hawk in the back row, both on serve receive and defensively, as well as the spark plug of the team. My DS, Kayleigh Ritter, who has shined from the service line, ran the back court with Anna. She is my second libero in right back defense and was a true game changer.. My right side, Katie Rohe, impacted the game blocking up front. She was matched up with plenty of talented outsides this weekend and slowed them down for our defense to defend and score off transition. Lastly my reserve, Heather Wicks, who had a hand injury earlier in the season, came to support her team in the most positive way all weekend. This whole team shined bright together this past weekend.”
“The feelings and emotions leaving Columbus were amazing,” McGinnis added. “Seeing your team win a national championship after a crazy year of Covid is truly special. All the hard work that was put in while waiting for a season paid off. Nothing was handed over to us this year. We earned that 1st place medal by coming together early in the season and working to get better every day up to Nationals. Seeing their faces light up with tears of joy gave me the highest level of happiness. To see their hard work all year pay off is unbelievable. It is bittersweet to see such a special group move on when you grow such a strong bond. It was truly an unforgettable season.”
• Vegas Aces was a confident group heading to Columbus. The team had qualified by winning 18 USA at Red Rock Rave with a backup setter, Brooklyn Stone, four weeks before. Coach Herrera’s team would have standout setter Caroline Edgeworth back (but not at 100 percent) after almost two months on the sidelines due to injury. What’s more, this team knew how to step up on the biggest stage. The core group of Vegas Aces had been to Junior Nationals five times before, finishing second at Junior Nationals in 13 American in 2016 and winning 15 USA in 2018.
“I was counting on their experience of being there to help pull through when times got tough,” Herrera said.
The top seed in Pool 5, Vegas Aces won its first four matches to clinch advancement, then made it hard on themselves by losing in two to TAV 18 Blue with the pool and a first-round Challenge Bracket bye on the line.
“I knew we had to let that one go and regroup, because we had to win two more crossovers that night to get to the Gold bracket on the third day,” Herrera said. “We had to sit and think about it for six hours before our crossover.”
Vegas Aces won both of its Challenge matches to make the Gold quarterfinals, but neither was easy. The team lost Game 1 to Southwest 18N TR before pulling out the win, 15-11 in the third. Vegas Aces then took on region counterpart, Forza1 UA, to make the top eight.
“We knew we were up for a tough battle, but also knew we had a chance if we just played our game, because we had seen each other play so much throughout the year,” Herrera explained.
The teams split the first two sets and battled point for point in a very exciting third set, which ended in the Vegas team’s favor, 15-13.
“I asked my team yesterday what was their most memorable moment of the tourney and several said the third set against Forza the second day,” Herrera said “The kids knew if we lost this one, our hopes and dreams of winning another medal was over. Both teams battled for every point and we were fortunate enough to make just enough plays to win. I have tremendous of amount respect for Forza and their organization and that match could’ve gone either way.”
The final day started with Vegas Aces sweeping previously-unbeaten Shockwave 18 Adidas Scott to clinch a third Junior National medal and spot in the semifinals. The team then faced off against Houston Juniors 18 Premier to get to the championship final. Vegas Aces crushed HJV in the first, 25-11.
“I think we surprised them with our defense and serving and beat them handily,” Herrera said. “We definitely knew they would not just roll over and hand us the match and we were right. They made some adjustments, came out firing on all cylinders and beat us 25-23. The third set would be my most memorable moment of the tournament. We won, 15-10, and the emotions hit me right then and there. These young ladies had another opportunity to play on the big stage with a chance to win the Gold Medal once again.”
Vegas Aces saw that Michio had just beaten TAV in the other semifinal. It knew that playing the team that beat the only team it had lost to would make for a tough final test.
“We ended up losing respectably in two against a well-coached team which just played sound fundamental volleyball,” Herrera explained. “They forced us into too many errors with their solid defense and tremendous serving. We weren’t in system enough and they took advantage of their opportunities.”
OHs Kamry Bailey and Taylor Jefferson and libero Sidra Wohlwend earned All-Tournament honors with terrific play, but all nine, including Julianne Carlat, Jennifer Soha, Sophia Parlanti, Caroline Edgeworth, Brooklyn Stone and Reni Ajayi, deserve recognition as well.
“We could not have achieved our goals if it was not for the hard work and dedication from all nine,” Herrera emphasized. “I love them all!”
Herrera said that he left Columbus emotionally spent, but with a full heart.
“This team was the original Vegas Aces 12s team that started Vegas Aces Volleyball in 2015,” he explained. “They are the ones who have set the standard and culture for the rest of the athletes and what a legacy they have left behind. They qualified every year for USA Nationals, and won 10 JNQ medals and 3 USA National Championship medals, one gold and two silver!”
Houston Juniors 18 Premier set a lot of goals this season. When they accomplished them, they set more. Heading into the USA division in Columbus, the team set one more goal:
“We knew winning a medal was obtainable,” coach Stephen Gbur said.
HJV started the tournament as the No. 2 seed in Pool 7 and swept its first four matches, setting up a showdown with Texas Pistols 18 Black for first place in the pool. At the Lone Star qualifier, Texas Pistols smoked HJV in the championship match. Houston Juniors was able to exact revenge with an epic three-set win that gave it a first-round Challenge bracket bye.
Houston Juniors played only three-set matches from that point forward. The team beat OVA 18 Black, 15-5 in the third, to reach the Gold bracket, then won an incredible battle with 1st Alliance 18 Black¸ 25-22, 23-25, 15-13, to earn that medal!
Vegas Aces was up next in the semis. Gbur noted that this was a personal revenge match for him.
“If you rewind and go back to when this age group was 13, Vegas Aces knocked HJV 13 Elite out of the Gold bracket! They sent us home with a 5th place finish and no medals. As a competitor I was ready to return the favor! Even though we came up short, it was a fun match. 18 Premier walked away giving it our all and satisfied with the effort we brought to Nationals. Oh, and we were pretty happy to be walking away with some hardware this time!”
Lexi Jones and Blair Moreland made the All-Tournament team. Jones was phenomenal the entire tournament.
“She took our biggest swings, made our biggest blocks, and passed nails all weekend,” Gbur said.
Moreland ran the show as a setter in a 5-1 offense, isolated her attackers well and put them in position to score. She also put up a big block and made some key defensive plays for the team.
Perris Key and Marjani Stanfill also were essential to the team’s medal run, Key as a calming presence as the team’s captain; and Stanfill as a great net presence and nonstop motor who kept the team accountable.
• TAV 18 Blue was seeded 12th overall in 18 USA, which was surprising for a club that triple qualified for Junior Nationals, including winning Big South. The team went to Columbus with a roster of 10, but with so many capable of playing two positions or more, coach Jonathan Daclison had lots of options.
“I truly believe that the team had an end game of placing top 3, with the ultimate goal of taking 1st place,” Daclison said.
TAV dropped a pool play match to Invasion 18-Black (17-15 in the third), but made the loss irrelevant by sweeping Vegas Aces. The team then reached the Gold bracket by sweeping Ocala Power 18 Adidas, a team that previously beat it was the Florida Pre-Qualifier. Daclison said that his team had revenge on its mind in that one.
TAV earned its medal Sunday morning with a nail biting win over ECJVC, a team it previously defeated at Big South. TAV dropped the first set and found itself down, 22-16, in the second set before rallying to win the match. TAV’s season ended one match later, in three to the eventual champions, but not before everyone on the team was able to contribute to its success.
“18 Blue has worked so hard this year and we had goals and met almost all of them,” Daclison. “I am very pleased how the players competed and blessed to have placed in USA division.”
• AVA Texas 18 Adidas fell short of its goal of medaling in 18 USA. The No. 2 seed overall went 4-1 in pool play but dropped a brutal Challenge bracket match to SKEVA (15-13) before finishing up with two Sunday wins to place tied for 17th.
“We had a great last tournament together,” assistant coach Lauren Ellison said. “Our team has some of the best team chemistry I’ve seen in many years and everyone loves each other so much. Many of our girls gave up their senior prom to be at Nationals, so we took them to a 5- star dinner at Hyde Park and they dressed up in prom dresses. After the dinner was over, our 18 Attack team was playing in the PM wave, and they really wanted to go support them. They went to watch their last match of the night while wearing their gowns! It was so fun and a memory we will carry and cherish forever.”
• Because the 18 American division has 64 teams, the format is actually tougher than Open, National and USA. There is a cut every day, from 64 teams to 32 after Day 1, from 32 to 16 after the Day 2 pool and from 16 to eight in the Saturday Challenge matches. Survive and advance is the name of the game.
Fourteen of the top 16 seeds managed to do just that on Day 1. Among them were Madfrog 18 National Green, the No. 1 overall seed, which overcame a loss to Unified 18-1 in its very first match to finish second in Pool 1; and Siesta Key Jrs 18 Charlie, which needed to rally from a set down in its last match, versus Madfrog 18 National Black, to keep its hopes alive.
A2 18 Green, the second seed in Pool 11, won its last match of Day 1 versus Topeka Saints 18-1 to finish 2-1 and win its pool in a tiebreaker. Unified, seeded 33rd overall, went 3-0 to win Pool 1, one of 14 teams to emerge unscathed from the first day.
Madfrog Green, Siesta Key, A2 and Unified, which went a combined 9-3 on Day 1, would wind up being the medal-winning teams. Interestingly, Madfrog and Unified were in the same pool on Day 1 and Siesta Key and A2 were in the same pool on Day 2.
The semifinalist teams were joined in the Gold bracket by Alamo 18 Premier, Asics Willowbrook 18 Gold, Austin Skyline 18 Royal and NIVA 17BB4 HO. Two of those four, Willowbrook and NIVA, joined Unified and Madfrog Green as the only four teams to go three days and lose only once.
• Madfrog 18 Green was the No. 1 seed.
“We felt the seeding was appropriate, but also knew the pressure it brought to the team,” assistant coach Brian Gatlin noted. “Anytime you’re the number one seed in the tournament, or the pool, you’ve got people targeting you for that number one spot.”
The Frogs lost their opening match to Unified, 17-15 in the third, on Day 1, and needed three to get by SAVA 18 Black the first match of Day 2, after dropping the first set.
“The first match of each of our days has historically been rough for our girls,” Gatlin noted. “We used the first match of both days to get warm and work out the kinks.”
The team played very well in its Challenge match, handling Mintonette m.82 in straights to reach the Gold bracket. The next day, the Frogs got by scrappy Willowbrook in three and then swept A2 to reach the final.
The championship match against Siesta Key had all the makings of a barn burner.
“Going into the match we felt that the team matched our athleticism and energy level,” Gatlin explained.
Madfrog had a great warm up and was feeling loose just before first serve. The team carried that momentum into the match and soon was up 16-7. Siesta Key rallied but got no closer than three points. The second set was closer from the start and close throughout, with the Frogs building enough of a margin to win, 25-20, to sweep to the title.
Setter Izzy Jones, MB Chloe Thomas and OH Paige Dugan were Madfrog standouts all tourney long. Jones distributed well and served aggressively. Thomas was effective in every phase, from attacking to blocking to serving to defense. Dugan served well and showed off her offensive repertoire at the net, mixing off speed with power to score consistently.
Siesta Key finished second in 18 American, while Unified and A2 tied for third.
Siesta Key had played Open all year and expected to do well in 18 American.
But coach Kali Boatright said, “We knew we had to come ready to work hard and earn each win. Overall we played very well. We had a few hiccups along the way but stayed persistent in finishing strong.”
Siesta Key carried an 8-1 record into the championship match versus Madfrog Green and played some of the best volleyball our team had played all year, according to Boatright.
“The last day was definitely the most fun, getting to play the best teams in the tournament in our division, all fighting for a chance to reach the championship match,” Boatright added.
After defeating Alamo and Unified, the team came up short in the championship match, but gave everything it had.
“Obviously it hurts to lose in the finals,” Boatright said, “but if it had to be to anyone, I am glad it was Madfrog’s 18 National Green Team. They were one of the classiest, talented, and fun team we saw all year!”
RS Alicia Kowalski (University of Tampa) made the All-Tournament team, as she was essentially unstoppable the last three matches. Hitters Skye Ekes (Florida State) and Azyah Dailey (Clemson), the team’s powerhouses, also were so honored.
The rest of the team also contributed mightily to its success. Shelby Fulton (Princeton), Mary Price (Virginia Tech), and Maddy Fowler (Florida Southern College) were solid and consistent all weekend. Junior libero Laela Price passed great all weekend and setters Dovile Gorys and Jexa Perez (Iowa Western) ran a very balanced offense and make great decisions in do or die situations.
“It was most of the team’s last club tournament ever and that showed in the massive team effort we saw all weekend,” Boatright said. “We had tons of fun, saw lots of passion and grit, and came together as a team the best we had all year.”
Unified, a Michigan club, started its tournament with a win over top-seeded Madfrog Green and didn’t stop winning until the semifinals, when Siesta Key ended their season at the Bronze Medal level.
“I expected us to do well,” coach Jason Gambone said, noting that his team had competed in Open all year.
Four of Unified’s eight matches went a full three sets, its first match of the tournament versus the Frogs and its final three wins – the last match of pool play on Days 2 versus m.82, the Challenge match versus Motion 18 Blu and the first round of the Gold bracket versus NIVA.
“Our challenge bracket was a struggle,” Gambone admitted. “I think we lost the first set and we were down 7 in the second. I had burned both timeouts early but the girls never gave up and chipped away at the lead and we pulled it out and won the third set.”
OH Claire Nowicki was the team’s MVP and both libero Avery Horejsi and RS Lauren Staruch played great all weekend.
“There were points throughout the tournament where every single girl contributed in a big way, which allowed us to finish where we did,” Gambone said.
“The girls left it all on the floor,” he concluded. “They played hard and I loved their fighting spirit.”
Brenden Pence is the head coach of the A2 team that earned a Bronze Medal. He also is the head coach at Ohio’s St. Francis de Sales, which made history in 2019, when it defeated then-national No. 1 Padua Franciscan for the Ohio Division I title. Pence connected with me to apologize for not responding sooner, as he’s been traveling all week for work, aka “real life problems.”
He’ll get back to me soon enough and we’ll reserve a Dot to celebrate his team’s medal-winning effort.