Daily Dots (March 16, 2021): Club or high school volleyball factoids, notions and ideas to impress your friends (or not)
• Part I of the Nike Mideast Qualifier concluded Sunday in Indianapolis with a total of 10 bids being awarded in four separate divisions. I reached out to all 10 bid winners, hoping to tell all of their stories. As I’ve often written in my more than two decades of covering volleyball nationally, because most teams at Junior Nationals won’t come close to contending (it’s just math), this is probably their biggest moment of the season. Each of their stories deserves to be told.
• In the 15 Open division, KC Power 15-1 survived a Gold pool loss to Boiler Juniors 15 Gold to advance to the four-team Gold bracket, then bested fellow qualifiers Rockwood Thunder 15 Elite and Dynasty 15 Black to earn the qualifier crown.
Power was the top seed going into the event and played like it.
“We wanted to be competitive in every match,” said head coach David Beach. “We didn’t look too far ahead or count on anything predictable happening. There were some very good teams in this field and we believed we would have some very tough matches.”
Power dropped a set to Michio Chicago to open the tournament, then swept seven straight opponents to get within a win of the semifinals. That win did not materialize, but by virtue of sweeping Milwaukee Sting to open Gold pool play, Power needed only to win a set from the Boilers to clinch advancement. The team did that in emphatic fashion, winning Game 2, 25-15, before dropping the third, 15-7.
“We met the goal of being competitive,” Beach said. “We played some really good teams and felt like we played well most of the time.”
Power was especially efficient in the semifinals, where it swept two close sets from Rockwood to clinch a bid.
“This may sound trite, but winning the semifinal match was the only time we ever addressed qualifying or getting an Open bid,” Beach said.
Power went on to outlast Heart of America Region rival Dynasty in the three-set championship match, avenging an earlier loss on the season. Beach was reticent to point out individual standouts because contributions came from the entire roster.
“It would be difficult to speak about our successes this past weekend and not emphasize the team effort exerted,” he emphasized. “Every player had a role and performed that role well throughout the weekend.”
• Dynasty was my pick to win 15 Open and Brian Tate’s team was making me look like a genius, with nine straight wins on the way to the final.
“We expected to play really good volleyball and to be in the final and have a chance to win,” Tate said.
Tate said the team stepped up its defensive effort on the second day, which made him increasingly confident that Dynasty would be in the mix at the end.
“We played really well most of the weekend, but fell short in two of the three sets in the final,” he added.
Tate added that the team seemingly got game-changing contributions from somebody different in each match, but that outsides Skyler Pierce and Carlie Cisneros were terrific in all six rotations, RS Abigail Mullen was a big point scorer and setters Emma Christian and Ava Martin did a great job of distributing and putting hitters in good spots to score.
• Rockwood Thunder won its first eight matches, including a nail biter with unheralded Upward Stars 15 Taylor to reach the semifinals. Chris Reid’s team lost to KC Power in the match to get to the championship, but rebounded with a dominant effort over Lions 15-1 to secure the final bid.
“With 48 teams in the field, including eight ranked in your top 25, we knew the competition at MEQ was going to be very tough,” Reid said. “Qualifying was definitely the goal, however, and we believed that if we could trust the consistent execution we had been working so hard to build in the practice gym, the goal was achievable.”
Reid said that Day 2 really put the team’s belief system to the test.
“We had to rally on multiple occasions to pull out wins against Sky High, Maverick and Elite. These players simply are unaffected by the scoreboard, and know they can come back from any deficit. They execute as well in crunch time as any team I’ve coached.”
Reid said that libero Oliva Hasbrook had a great weekend keying the offense with her first contact dominance while passing over half the court. MB Mia Scanlon hit .395 for the weekend and was especially dominant in transition. Reid also lauded both of his setters, Alyssa Nelson for her rally-extending defense; and Morgan Dumm, for keeping team off-balance with her second-contact attacking.
Reid also went out of his way to praise Upward Stars (because he’s a mensch in that way).
“They had great ball control and were extremely consistent,” he said. “If we had not beaten them, they would have qualified.”
• Upward Stars didn’t just catch Reid’s attention; the South Carolina squad captured mine as well. Coached by Taylor Motts, Upward won seven straight matches, including a sweep of Boilers Juniors, before Rockwood Thunder ended its tournament in the last Gold pool 4 match, 29-27, 25-21.
“As a team we went in ranked 20th,” Motts said. “With the level of competition and our record before entering the tournament, I feel as though we could have easily been ranked in the top 10. Our 5th place finish consisted of many hard-fought wins that tested us as a team, but this is just the beginning. Our team, girls and coaches alike have set extremely high expectations and this weekend’s performance was part of that.”
Big-leaping outside Carly O’Brien had a great weekend for Upward, hitting .425 and passing 2.23.
“Her energy and competitive spirit set the tone in multiple matches for us,” Motts observed.
O’Brien’s sister, libero Kayla O’Brien, also was a catalyst. She passed 2.18 for the weekend with 70 digs.
“Kayla’s resiliency and ability to make hustle plays kept many balls alive and gave our team the opportunity to rally and score,” Motts said.
Motts also praised S/RS Sydney Shearer, who was strong in six rotations and used her high volleyball I.Q. to make quick decisions that benefited the team.
Motts said the disappointment of falling just short of an Open bid will fuel the team going forward.
“We came so close that we could taste it,” she said. “It was a heartbreaker, but it is also motivating for our future tournaments and practices.”
• KC Power 16-1 went to Indy ranked No. 1 nationally by VolleyballMag.com and seeded first in the 46-team 16 Open field, but that doesn’t mean the team had “championship or bust” on its mind.
“Our goal this weekend, with such a solid field in MEQ, was to get our Open bid,” coach Mike Stowell said. “Once we secured that with a tough semifinal win against a terrific Drive Nation team, our goal obviously changed to winning it all.”
Over the first two days of the tournament, no team had challenged Power for more than a set. That all changed on Day 3.
“In our first match on Day 3, we played a really good AVC team, where we found ourselves down, 13-11, in Game 3,” Stowell shared. “After a timeout, Ella Swindle came out and served a tough ace to close it to one point and we scored five of the last six points to win 16-14.”
Stowell said that AVC controlled much of what Power wanted to do in Game 1 and for most of Game 3.
“We could have easily found ourselves outside of the top four without some key plays down the stretch,” he added.
Power went on to sweep Milwaukee Sting to clinch a spot in the semifinals, then took two straight off of both Drive Nation and 1st Alliance to clinch Gold.
“We played our best volleyball of the year on Day 3,” Stowell said.
Power succeeded despite losing MB/RS Taylor Russell to an ankle sprain on the second day. MB Alli Olson stepped up and played her best volleyball of the year when the team needed her most.
Others who had big performances in “winning time” included RS Ava TeStrake, MB Sawyer Thomsen and OH Reagan Fox. The back row play of Alayna Pearson and Caitlin Cobb, complemented by OH Izzy Day, was on point in the medal rounds.
• 1st Alliance 16 Silver was sizzling hot until meeting up with KC Power in the final. No. 4 nationally, Trish Samolinski’s team won its first five matches by an average score of 25-13, 25-13 until having to fend of Academy Cleveland in three just like KC Power did.
(Side note: I guess AVC is pretty good! The team lost only twice all tournament and suggested that coach Dan Mihacevich’s assessment of the team – “Better than mediocre but still not a top elite team” – might need modification).
After escaping Academy, 1st Alliance returned to its sweeping ways. It swept tough Alamo for the bid, before succumbing to KC Power.
“Our goal with any qualifier and/or big tournament is to get the bid and to finish higher than our seed,” Samolinski said. “With us being seeded third, earning that Open bid was the goal. The team exceeded my expectations consider the challenges we have had in Illinois with our training and high school starting up this past week. I was concerned about fatigue and only having one true team practice leading into this big tournament.”
Despite all the early success over the first two days, Samolinski said the key moment of the tournament came versus Alamo.
“We played as a team and were consistent and efficient, which has been our focus these last few weeks,” she explained.
OH Kennedy Wagner highlighted the offensive effort and libero Gigi Navarette was so consistent defensively. But while they helped fuel the team’s fire, “it was truly a team effort with all areas of our game hitting their stride at the right time,” Samolinski explained. “This team has grit, knows how to grind and gives relentless effort at all times.”
• Drive Nation 16 Red reached the semifinals with only a dropped set to NKYVC, starting Day 3, marring what to that point had been near perfection. Head coach Jason Nicholson said that lost set was what propelled the team to qualify.
“Day 3 we came out very slow against a scrappy NKYVC,” he shared. “Still struggling early in Set 2, we were able to turn the momentum and use our size to dominate the net. Set 3 we came out fast, and this seemed to get us back on track for the day.”
Drive Nation took control early in its semifinal versus KC Power. It had an 11-4 Game 1 lead before ball control broke down and the team couldn’t recover. The loss set up an all-Texas showdown versus Alamo for the final bid.
Drive Nation had beaten Alamo the weekend before at Tour of Texas, but Nicholson knew that last weekend’s Alamo team was playing shorthanded. This Alamo team won Game 2 to send it to a third set, before middles Reese Robins and Leah Ford took control of the net early to help Drive Nation secure the bid.
Nicholson said that libero Landry McEachern, setter Lily Nicholson, OH Halle Schroder and RS Sam Hoppes also were among many to distinguish themselves this weekend.
“The girls were great, and it took a team effort to get through three days of volleyball,” he explained. “It had been a while for the girls to participate in an event of this caliber for three days and it took its toll, but I was proud of the girls and their resilience to fight through and get the bid.”
• The 16 USA field in Indianapolis was huge, with 102 teams looking to see how they stacked up. In the end, three teams emerged with bids: champion Tejas 16 Black, runner up Mintonette m.62 and third place finisher Milwaukee Sting 16 Black.
Tejas was given an opportunity to share their stories, but was unable to respond by press time.
Mintonette’s goal coming to MEQ was to obtain a bid. Seeded third overall, coach Adam Miracle knew his crew had a chance to win the whole thing and had some amazing practices in the days before traveling to Indiana.
Practice paid off because m.62 not only earned its bid, it almost won the title. After splitting the first two sets versus Tejas, the third wasn’t decided until Tejas had put 20 points on the board.
“We had multiple opportunities to win that match,” Miracle said. “We led the majority of the third set and let it slip through our fingers. Kudos to Tejas for coming back and winning. It’s was a very close game that I hope we can learn from as a team!”
“It would’ve been nice to come away as champions but I’m extremely proud of how the girls performed,” Miracle added.
Mintonette had two key moments that sparked the team’s qualification. The first came in the Gold quarterfinals, when m.62 rallied from a set down to upend Oklahoma Charge, the No. 1 overall seed. The second came in the semifinals, when Mintonette swept a Sting team that one day before beat them in three sets.
Miracle was especially proud of how his middles, who have been working their tails off, played a vital role in the team’s success this weekend.
“My team has a lot of talent at every position,” he explained. “We don’t really have any glaring weaknesses as a team.”
Going into the semifinals, Sting 16 Black had to feel pretty good about making the finals. Bruce Meredith’s squad, seeded fourth overall to start, had already beaten its semifinal opponent, m.62, and had built an 8-0 record with just one set dropped.
When Mintonette won the rematch, its first win over Sting in three tries this season, Sting had to regroup. There was still a bid to be won.
Sting got stomped by Forza1 North in the first set, 25-14, but eked out the second at deuce before winning the third, 15-11.
“I believe that may have been our best match of the season,” Meredith said. “Not because we played our best volleyball, but because we were able to pull ourselves up from what looked to be a heartbreaking loss and finish the job.”
OHs Katherine Lockwood and Rylee Duessler, setter Elana Dragini and defenders Molly Berezowitz and Anjelica Refinski were instrumental to Sting’s success, but, as Meredith noted: “It would be unfair not to mention that everyone on this team has contributed incredibly to our success this weekend and throughout the season.”
Sting now has four top three finishes in all events this season.
“We are not a really big team,” the coach explained. “We go out with the understanding that if we play good volleyball and focus on the things that we physically have the ability to do well, like being aggressive from the service line, consistent in serve receive, and relentless defensively, that good things will happen. We were able to stay disciplined and true to that approach last weekend and were rewarded with a bid.”
• The odds of winning an American bid at a qualifier are extremely rare. Only one bid is awarded! Thus, when you are one of 128 teams, can you really expect to be the only one left standing when all is said and done?
Alamo 16 Elite was seeded first, which made it the hunted in every match it played. Nevertheless, the team managed to put all that aside and just play. Eleven wins later, the team had completed its wire-to-wire journey to the title.
“This team has been very goal oriented from the beginning of the season and has been driven to get better every day,” head coach Amanda Rodriguez said. “Having the one seed headed into MEQ was a nod to their progress thus far and we were focused on defending it all weekend.”
Alamo defeated Impact VBC 16-1 in the final. The teams also met earlier in the tournament, with Alamo overcoming its toughest test, 20-18 in the third. This one was a little easier, as Alamo swept the championship match.
“Seeing them in the finals wasn’t surprising,” Rodriguez said. “We served aggressively as a team and made good blocking adjustments in the finals match. Outside hitter Robyn Wilson stepped up big on Day 3 and was the difference maker in our second matchup with Impact, hitting a .741 in the finals.”
OH Rylee Busse led the team in kills for the tournament and had a great serving weekend.
“There is a reason she is our emotional leader and sets the tone for matches,” Rodriguez said. “Taking big, dominant swings at the net and big effort plays on defense really fire up the team and get everyone playing at a higher level.”
Libero Bella Guevara, who got cleared just in time for tournament play, also had a profound impact, especially on the last two days. Her passing was so good that Alamo’s setters usually had plenty of options.
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