Tawa’s Daily Dots: Nonstop drama at Crossroads 18 Open, Juniors’ crazy eights, did Encore really qualify in first tourney in 13 months?

Tawa's Daily Dots 3/21/2021-Colorado Juniors
Colorado Juniors

Daily Dots (March 23, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)

On Oct. 30, the announcement appeared on Facebook: the Molten Colorado Crossroads National Qualifier, typically held late February/early March on consecutive weekends at the Colorado Convention Center in Dallas, would indeed take place in 2021, only with some modifications thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 18s would be a stand-alone tournament played March 19-21 at two facilities in Windsor: NORCO’s current six-court facility and a new, 10-court facility opening soon. The youngsters (11s-14s) would be at the convention center in early April and the older players (15s-17s) would invade the convention center in early May. The 11s-14s age groups subsequently got pushed back to May (to follow the 15s-17s), but the Crossroads Qualifier would go on. In all age groups!

• One year ago, as the United States was trying to figure out just what this coronavirus was and what to do about it, Week 2 of Crossroads was getting ready to be contested. On Wednesday, March 11, the tournament announced that the Denver event would go on as scheduled. Just a few hours later, following a recommendation by USA Volleyball that all its sanctioned events scheduled through March 22 “be postponed or canceled to ensure the safety of athletes as the COVID-19 virus spreads,” Crossroads made another announcement:

“We have just received important and conclusive information that causes us to change the notice we sent out yesterday and announce that we must stop Crossroads for week two,” the early-morning March 12 news release said. “We wish things had not changed overnight, but they have.” 

A Denver Post story announcing the postponement noted, as follows: “The news release did not indicate whether the tournament’s second week will be held at a later date or would be canceled.”

Week 2 never happened, of course. Nor did any other qualifier thereafter or Junior Nationals.

COVID-19 spread across the U.S. quickly and surged in the fall, putting the 2021 club season at risk. Qualifiers like Crossroads had to “take the temperature of the crowd,” both assessing the amount of COVID in the area and the political climate on a daily basis to determine how, when, where, and even if, to conduct their events.

• Windsor, Colorado, sits due north of Denver some 58 miles, mostly on I-25. It is home to NORCO VBC and its spanking new, sparkling 10-court, Taraflex facility. The facility opened just a month before the 18s descended on it for Crossroads (which must have caused more than a few panic-inducing moments), but proved a most able host. Yes, parents and other fans were not permitted to attend, but the 101 teams that made the trek were treated to a venue that served the purpose and, most importantly, was in a location that permitted it to be played. With the Colorado Convention Center being used as a hospital until the end of March and USA Volleyball keeping April as the month for the 18s Junior National Championships, another venue was necessary, whether in Colorado or another state.

“Jared Rudinger, who coaches at NORCO, was instrumental is facilitating us working with NORCO to see if there was a fit,” said Kay Rogness, the tournament’s director.  “The new NORCO building was under construction when we first visited it, and, in fact, only opened four weeks before the start of Crossroads. It was February 26 before Larimer County officials inspected the building to determine IF we could even have the event in the building and we learned what the restrictions would be.”
 
I spoke to a couple of club directors about the new venue and received positive feedback.

Said Rogness: “The new facility has all the bells and whistles and then some; great court surface (Taraflex), really nice concession stand with a great variety of snacks and more substantive choices, great viewing area, multitudinous parking spaces, great access to Denver International Airport, and good proximity to hotels and food outlets.”

The NORCO staff posted this on its website in the days following the event:

INCREDIBLE “18’s”CROSSROADS TOURNAMENT

On behalf of the NORCO organization, we would like to thank and congratulate Kay Rogness and her FRVBC staff for running a professional and safe Junior National Qualifier during a pandemic year! And congratulations to over 100 teams that were given this chance to compete in Colorado! Although you may experience a few glitches in a major indoor event, this staff worked quickly and tirelessly to resolve these minor tweaks.  Most importantly, players came from all over and took full advantage of this playing opportunity that was made possible by following all of the state and county guidelines. This was a major endeavor to undertake and to implement and the most important positive outcome was the fact that these young women ‘finally’ had their chance to play.

“What really made it work for the tournament was the NORCO  staff – from top to bottom,” Rogness said. “They were immensely helpful.  Cathy Mahaffey, Mary Murphy, Courtney Wallace, All Bodayla, Janae McDonnell, Troy McWhinney, the concession staff, and others kept going for every minute the event was going.”

• We will confine our Crossroads recap today to the 18 Open division, as deadlines prohibit writing more than I have already. Look for information on 18 USA and 18 American in tomorrow’s Dots.

The 18 Open field consisted of 21 teams, five with national rankings. Only one, however, No. 9 Premier Nebraska 18 Gold, came to Windsor with a bid in hand. Premier also was shorthanded, with OH Lindsay Krause still a no-go due to a sprained knee suffered during the Northern Lights Qualifier.

Premier was incredible over the first two days, behind Creighton-bound OH Norah Sis. Not having that other hammer, however, caught up with them on Day 3 and they finished tied for fifth with Mizuno Northern Lights 18-1. Led by its pin hitters, Lights won its first five matches, but dropped its final three, all in three sets.

Tstreet Kasia

• On Sunday, after Gold pool play was complete, four teams remained with the chance to take home bids: No. 7 Tstreet 18-Kasia, No. 16 Colorado Juniors 18 Kevin and two unheralded teams, Encore 18 Goldhahn and AZ Sky VBC 18 Gold.

Three of the four hopefuls were a surprise: Colorado Juniors, because it had played only 11 matches, none outside of its region; Encore because, as a Northern California club, it had not yet played AT ALL outside of its gym; and AZ Sky, because it wasn’t used to the rarefied air of a final four spot in Open AND was playing without its hitting star, Adna Mehmedovic, who had suffered an ACL tear during the Florida National Qualifier in Orlando on Jan. 23.

Let’s start with Tstreet, which is star laden and was coming off of another strong showing in the Premier Volleyball League, a power league in which it is 14-3 against the best of SoCal.

Tstreet came to Crossroads expecting to go undefeated and win the tournament. 

“We always like to set our expectations high,” said coach Katarzyna Ligwinska.

Tstreet won its first eight matches, seven by sweep, to make the championship final. The one match it did not sweep was a doozy, however, against Colorado Juniors on Day 2. CJ, led by 6-7 junior middle Carter Booth, who was unstoppable all weekend, took a 13-8 advantage in Game 3 before Tstreet clawed back.

“We showed a lot of toughness and poise being down in most of that match, but we always believed we would win,” Ligwinska said. 

Behind great decision making from setters Rachel Fairbanks and Dommi Drust and a big time defensive effort sparked by libero Lauren Bays, Tstreet came all the way back to win, 19-17, then won Gold pool matches handily to clinch its bid and a spot in the final.

• Encore’s first match of the tournament on Friday came against top-seeded and national No. 6 Coast 18-1, coming off of a win at the PVL tournament the weekend before.  Encore, seeded ninth overall, shocked Coast in the first set, stumbled in the second and recovered to eke out a 16-14 Game 3 win. That win set the trajectory for both teams. Encore went on to win its pool and the next to get to the Gold pools; Coast lost again the next day, crushed by Sis and Premier Nebraska, to finish seventh overall.

“Our team was just excited to compete,” Encore head coach Katie Goldhahn said.  “We were curious as to where we would stack up against the top teams.”

Playing without Peyton Dueck (appendix), considered the top libero in NorCal;  Maggie Curtis put on the contrasting jersey and was stellar all weekend long, despite herself playing with a broken finger. Encore also relied on its middles to serve and its outsides to play six rotations.

“A lot of adversity to deal with,” Goldhahn noted, “but our team was unfazed.”

Sunday’s three-team Gold pool had Encore as the top seed but it certainly wasn’t the favorite against nationally-ranked opponents like Colorado Juniors and Northern Lights. Both of Encore’s matches went to deuce in the third set. Against Juniors, Encore, which had played error free over most of the first two days, were hurt late by four service errors in the 18-16 loss. That, and trouble stopping Booth on the slide. Against Lights, Encore used a balanced offense set by junior Millie Muir to chip away against another team bigger than they were. Lauren Crowl and Erin Lamb had a lot of success on the pins, but Encore won Game 1, 31-29, and Game 3, 15-13, by serving just tough enough and being just scrappy enough and just smart enough to pull it out. The reward was one match for third place and the final bid.

Like Encore, AZ Sky’s first match of Crossroads set the tone for the entire tournament. It came against KC Power 18-1, a team that was unranked, because we did not receive a form from them to assess the roster; but seeded fifth overall with recognizable national talent like libero Jaden Ravnsborg, OH Brooke Stonestreet, RS Kayana Cruise and a trio of top-flight middles.

AZ Sky got stomped in the first set, which is what I expected given that the team was without Mehmedovic (I neglected to mention that COVID struck the team in January before the Florida Qualifier, which required a two-week quarantine and no practice time). But the team found a way to win the second set, 26-24, and took the third, 15-13. AZ Sky, seeded 16th overall out of 21 teams, was 1-0.

“It was that comeback that set the tone for them,” said coach Julia Larish. “They recognized what they were capable of.”

Sky finished its five-team pool 3-1, losing only to Colorado Juniors; then went 2-1 on Day 2, losing only in straight sets to Encore. On Sunday, AZ Sky lost to Tstreet out of the gate in Gold Pool 2 and then took on Premier Nebraska. In Gold Pool 1, both Encore (0-1 at the time) and Northern Lights (0-0) knew they might only have to win one match to earn a bid, if previously-qualified Premier beat AZ Sky, as expected.

Sky stepped up to win in two. Any team wanting a bid would have to go through them…

• Colorado Juniors got to Crossroads with an 11-0 record, but had yet to play outside of the Rocky Mountain Region. In addition, the team was down to just eight players after OH Maddie Kinney’s season-ending shoulder injury (Riley Simpson, a 6-3 RS headed to Baylor, opted to play on CJ’s second team in order to work on being a six-rotation outside). Head coach Kevin Marquis knew he had a good team; he just didn’t know what to expect of them at this stage in the season.

Seeded fourth overall, Juniors opened its tournament with three dominating wins in the five-team pool. Anjelina Starck and Kinley Gomez on the left were putting balls away and keeping them up, like good six-rotation outsides were supposed to do. Peyton Dunn was orchestrating an efficient offense. Rylie Kadel, whether playing middle or on the right, was scoring at will and getting touches on lots of balls. And the 6-7 Booth, she of the 10-8 approach touch, was telling the world with her play that she might be the top recruit in the Class of 2022.

Juniors faced adversity facing a desperate KC Power team needing a win to avoid a play-in bracket, but survived a Game 1 loss to win in three (15-13) and head into Day 2 with a 4-0 record. CJ won its first two Saturday matches handily, before dropping that marathon heartbreaker to Tstreet.

“We had at least 3-4 swings to win it,” Marquis said.

The loss put Colorado Juniors in the more challenging Gold pool. And what a challenge it was!

After surviving Encore, Juniors, as the third seed in Pool 1, had to play right away against resting Northern Lights. Lights, using Crowl to maximum effect, won the first set. Marquis adjusted his lineup by moving Kadel into the middle and Amelia Davis to the right and it helped Juniors touch more balls and be more efficient in transition. The team won the second set, 25-23; in other words, by just enough.

In the huddle before the third set, Marquis took stock of his team.

“We have one game to 15 for a bid,” he told them.

Lights scored the first point, but a side out brought Kadel to the service line. She served bullets and it was 7-1 before Northern Lights called for time. Colorado Juniors kept up the service pressure for the entire set – underscoring its them to “Apply pressure with every contact” – and went on to win, 15-5, which clinched the bid and a spot in the finals.

• Now, given how these teams played the day before, you would have been right to believe that the championship match between Tstreet and Colorado Juniors would be incredible. Instead, Colorado Juniors prevailed, 25-10, 25-16.

“In the first game, we found another gear,” Marquis said. “The level we played at was so high; almost perfect volleyball for 25 points. Every swing we took was legit. There were very few down balls, very few free balls. We played just a ridiculously clean game. Carter and Rylie in transition were unstoppable.”

The second set was closer. It was tied midway through before Colorado Juniors made a huge run, again with Kadel behind the service line. Libero Gabi Brown also was stellar on defense, thwarting any Tstreet attempts at shifting the momentum.

“Starck and Gomez were unreal the whole weekend on the outside,” Marquis said. “And Carter Booth in the middle was unstoppable the whole weekend. She is a beast right now; so much better than she used to be. I’d find it hard to believe that she’s not the most physical middle in the country.”

Marquis added that the finals “blowout” wasn’t so much about Tstreet playing poorly as it was Juniors playing out of their minds. Tstreet’s coach agreed with that assessment.

“Every player on my team stepped up and competed at a high level,” she said. “Team effort and fighting through adversity was definitely a success this weekend. We came up a bit short of our expectations, but we’ll take Silver and the bid and get back in the gym.”

Encore

• The third-place match for the final bid, between Encore and AZ Sky, went three sets and finished 23-21 in the third in favor of Encore. It was a rematch of the finals from the Las Vegas Classic in February, 2020 – which AZ Sky won – and the last match either of those teams played before COVID hit.

“I talked to the team before the match about having a warrior mentality,” said Larish of AZ Sky. “I knew this would be a tough match against a talented and well-coached team. I told them we had to look at this game as a war and each point would be a battle. We had to focus on one battle at a time to hopefully win the war.”

Encore won the first set handily, which gave the AZ Sky coach a feeling of déjà vu to the team’s opening match versus KC Power.

“After that set I talked to them about focusing on the controllables and seizing the opportunity to play such high level volleyball against a great team,” Larish explained.

AZ Sky bounced back to win Game 2, 25-22, setting up one set to 15 for a bid. As it turned out, Encore needed much more than 15 points to earn it.

“The third set was a gut match of back and forth rallies and runs of points for both sides,” Larish said. “We had match point at least four times that I recall. You can look at the score and see that it was a tremendous battle. What that score doesn’t show is that each point was rallied back and forth multiple times with incredible offensive and defensive plays on both sides. These weren’t quick aces or missed serves or first ball side out situations. They were rallies with all-out effort that went back and forth multiple times.”

Encore reveled in the win.

“They came with a mission to play tough, competitive volleyball, were hungry to compete, and finished 8-1,” Goldhahn said.

AZ Sky had a hard time dealing with the loss.

“The team was devastated,” Larish said. “Not only to be that close to a bid, but to put everything you have into a match and come up short is a hard pill to swallow. They were exhausted and emotionally drained, but I also think they feel more motivated than ever and are more prepared to take on their next challenge. Even though we ended up with the loss, I could not be more proud of this team. The amount of effort they put into that match as well as the rest of the weekend was incredible.”

• “Yes, I am a six-rotation goddess!” Highlight of the Week

Let’s add a video highlight to today’s Dots, first to have some content that isn’t Crossroads related; and also because VolleyballMag.com editor Lee said no video clips this week after Wednesday and I have so many good ones thanks to a robust response from my request. This video is of OH Jordan Walker, a junior on 1st Alliance 17 Silver. Watch her make a great reaction dig, chase a ball off the court to make another and then get in on the point-ending stuff block, all in the same rally! That’s doing work!

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