Tawa’s Girls Club Volleyball Dots: Qualifying the Qualifiers

This is “Dots,” VolleyballMag’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.

• In today’s Dots, we answer the question EVERYONE is dying to know: Why, John, do you cover national qualifiers to extensively?

There are two principal reasons:

1) For most teams, in most divisions, you MUST qualify at a national qualifier to play in USAV’s Junior National Championships. It’s not quite the golden ticket it was 20 years ago, when JO’s (for Junior Olympics, as they were then called (and are still called by old timers)) had only Open and Club divisions. But it’s still quite the achievement to get your bid to Junior Nationals at a qualifier. That’s especially true in the Open division.

If you can earn a bid at a qualifier to play in the season-ending national event in the division where only the most elite teams play, well, that’s something that should be celebrated. Because it can be VERY hard.

Side note: That’s why, about 15 years ago, when one of my favorite clubs deliberately tossed a match at Show Me that would have qualified them for 18 Open, I felt compelled to take that club, and its director, to task. The director felt her team would do better at Junior Nationals in the 18 National division. To that, I say, when you get the chance to win, play to win or don’t sign up to play in Open in the first place.

2) For most teams, in most divisions, qualifying at a national qualifier will be the biggest highlight of their seasons. Only a handful of teams will go to Junior Nationals with realistic expectations of contending for a podium finish. Clubs that earn bids on the court at a qualifier deserve to be celebrated and have their stories told. This is a big deal!

• We turn now to the sole qualifier on the schedule last weekend, the adidas Lone Star Qualifier in Austin, Texas.

OT 18 O Roberto qualified out of the gate in 18 Open at Lone Star

This was an 18s-only event, highlighted by the stacked 18 Open division. Three qualifiers emerged from the 16-team field: TAV 18 BlackOT 18 O Roberto and Houston Skyline 18 Royal. That means the likes of Madfrog 18’s National GreenCoast 18-1 and Dallas Skyline 18 Royal went home empty-handed.

TAV won it all and should have. This roster reads like a Who’s Who of not only the best in the Dallas area, but also the best in Texas as well as the nation.  Indeed, there are at least four and possibly more on 18 Black with National Team-type talent, led by senior MB Favor Anyanwu and junior OH Macaria Spears.

And yet, despite an overwhelming talent advantage, TAV was almost eliminated from contention on Saturday. The team lost a three-set match to Houston Skyline, making its final pool play match versus Coast a must-win. TAV dropped the first set, then recovered to make the Gold pool, where it won out to capture Gold.

If TAV 18 Black does not go on to win Triple Crown and 18s Junior Nationals, this old scribe will be absolutely shocked. The roster simply has too much talent.

• OT, from Orlando, played its best volleyball on the final day to finish second and qualify.

Head coach Roberto Santasofia’s team suffered adversity on Day 1, when Coast scored 13 straight points in Game 2 to sweep. And OT found itself on the right side of a three-way 2-1 on Day 2 before clinching a bid with Sunday wins over both Skyline teams.

“We truly brought our A-game to Lone Star,” Santasofia said. “With precise serves, great defense, and powerful spikes, each player contributed to our success. Our teamwork and determination prevailed.”

After losing to Coast, a team meeting and the realization that Day 2 would be even tougher flipped a switch in the players.

“We showcased resilience and turned obstacles into opportunities,” Santasofia said.

The coach added that the entire team played phenomenally, but reserved extra praise for OH Fallon Stewart, RS Ana Julia Piexoto and setter Juleigh Urbina.

***

Houston Skyline qualified third despite a 5-4 record that saw the team win just three more sets than it lost. The team, which defeated TAV on Day 2, was 4-4 heading into its “winner qualifies” match versus Dallas Skyline on Sunday and won in two to punch its ticket.

• Three additional teams, AVA of Texas 18 Adidas, Madfrog 18’s National Black and San Antonio Juniors 18 Adidas, qualified in the 32 team 18 USA division, considered the third most prestigious after Open and National.

AVA of Texas was best in 18 USA

AVA dropped only two sets, in a three-set loss to Coast 18-2, en route to a dominating run, which included an impressive sweep of the Frogs in the championship match.

The team did face its share of adversity, however. After playing really well on Friday, AVA awakened Saturday morning to learn that a starting attacker would be sidelined by flu. AVA won its first Saturday pool play match, but the loss to Coast left the team shaken and fresh with the realization that it not only needed to defeat A5 18-2 Boba to stay alive, it had to win in two!

The match started at 9:15 p.m., 90 minutes late, and was intense from the start. The teams battled in Game 1 into extra points, with AVA eking out the 29-27 win!

“My team had so much fight and energy and all of us coaches were just hoping and praying they came out with that same intensity in the second set,” coach Jamie Gill said. “Well, we won with a 25-13 finish and that took us from 3rd to 1st in our pool!”

On Sunday, another player started to feel sick, but she pushed through after a position change. Kudos to MB Dani Udegbunam, who moved over to the right side and was amazing.

“Every kid on this team is a stand out kid,” Gill added. “Each and every one of them contributed to our team’s success. They stepped up when they needed to and they all did an amazing job. Every one of them is selfless and they truly care about each other’s successes. They celebrate one another, push each other to be better and fully respect one another. This team is the true definition of a TEAM. We may not be the biggest in size, but what they lack in size, they make up with heart.”

***

The Frogs were undefeated until the championship match, but were extended twice to deuce in third sets in wins over Arete 18 Navy Telos and  SA Juniors.

SA Juniors overcame the disappointment of a 19-17 semifinal loss to Madfrog to knock off TAV 18 Blue in two for the final qualifying spot. It was a satisfying way to end a tough day that also included a three-set win over Dallas Skyline 18 Black.

• A5 18-3 Scott’s run to the title in the 18 Liberty division, included a revenge win over Texas Tornados 18 Adidas in the semifinals (18-16 in the third) and a 25-23, 25-23 sweep of Roots 18-1 Green, which also qualified, in the championship match.

Staring down death, A5 18-3 Scott chose Liberty with a big rally at Lone Star

A5 needed a massive comeback on Day 2 to stay in contention. The Atlanta squad was down 14-9 in Game 3 to BCS H Skyline 18 Royal and got five straight service points from Gabi Fullwood to rally A5 to tie, in a match it eventually won, 17-15.

“This team had all 12 players contribute at different times in different matches to help it to the championship,” said coach Scott Cioffari.

• Only one bid was up for grabs in the 62-team 18 American division. It went to Katy United 18 Adidas, which went 10-0 and dropped just one set on its way to a bid.

Katy United took the only Lone Star bid in 18 American

“Finishing first was an incredible achievement, and I couldn’t be prouder of each member of our team,” said head coach Kat Agson. “Throughout the tournament, it was evident that our success was truly a team effort. Every player contributed their skills, dedication, and unwavering commitment to the game. It was heartening to witness the synergy and camaraderie among us, and I believe that this collective spirit played a crucial role in our success.”

Agson added that composure under pressure was critical to team success.

“No matter the challenges we faced, every player kept their head high and maintained a positive attitude,” she said. “It was this mental resilience that allowed us to navigate through the tournament with grace and determination.”

Katy United made a flawless run to the championship match, only to drop the first set of the final, 25-23, to Valley Venom 181 Red. Katy U responded by winning Game 2 handily and pulling out a 19-17 decision in Game 3 to take the crown.

“I am most proud of our team’s response after losing the first set in the championship match,” Agson said. “Instead of letting adversity define us, we rallied together, demonstrated resilience, and fought back. This comeback not only showcases our physical abilities but also our mental fortitude and the unbreakable bond that ties us as a team.”

• For years, Munciana Samurai has been the standard of excellence for JVA 18s teams that do not participate in the USA Volleyball qualifier system. We caught up with longtime Samurai coach Mike Lingenfelter and asked about his team for 2024.

The team hasn’t played much – just one weekend of Power League (5-0) – but has serious potential, the coach said. Lingenfelter loves his quartet of defenders – Lola SchumacherSpencer EtzlerAddison Applegate and Lexi Gin – and says they are potentially his best group ever in the back row. Samurai also has very strong pins in juniors Addison Tindall, Lindsey Mangelson and Charlotte Vinson. Tindall, a Purdue recruit, is the L1 and could be special. The last Samurai/Purdue prospect on the outside was Eva Hudson, who carried Muncie’s offense when she was on the floor.

• Two weeks ago, senior OH/MB Ayden Ames was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year. Ames spend the past three seasons playing for Prospect in Texas after moving to Texas from California (She played club for Mizuno Long Beach as a freshman and TAV the past two seasons).

Ames, a Texas signee, is one of six seniors ranked among my national top 10 recruits, to enroll early in college and forego their last year of club ball.

The four who are playing 18s this year include Mizuno Long Beach setter Charlie Fuerbringer, TAV MB Favor AnyanwuTeam Pineapple OH Morgan Gaerte and A5 OH Hannah Benjamin.

• When the folks choosing the Gatorade Player of the Year reached out to ask me who my finalists for the national honor would be, I mentioned Ames, who is fantastic as both an outside and middle; but she was not my favorite. Among seniors, I liked Payton Petersen from Iowa and Emerson Sellman from Maryland. I also LOVED junior Teraya Sigler from Arizona.

When asked to make my final recommendation, I chose Sellman, the 6-4 OH from Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, Maryland. Why Sellman? She was No. 5 on my list of top Class of 2024 recruits and an early enrollee at Ohio State. She also played for the USA U19 and U21 teams this summer, then led the Tartans to a 29-0 record, which included 25 kills, nine digs, three aces and two blocks in the WCAC championship match. She was named Washington Post  All-Met POY for the second straight year.

When I evaluate national POY candidates, I look for their impacts on their states as well as beyond. Sellman was the only player to represent the USA and lead her high school team to an undefeated season. When you have to split hairs to find the most deserving from a group of superstars, these were the deciding factors for me.

• Finally, with very little major tournament action last weekend, let’s look briefly at more noted performances from MLK weekend in mid-January.

Arizona Storm Elite 17 Thunder, the 2023 16 Open national open champions, played in the Fiesta MLK Classic in Phoenix over MLK weekend. The team went 9–0 in the 18 Open division, while only dropping one set (to Storm 18 Thunder).

AZ Storm’s 17s won 18 Open at MLK Fiesta Classic in Arizona, with a performance worthy of a reigning national champion

Sigler, along with OHs Devyn Weist (Utah), Alyssa Aguayo (Illinois), and Mckaley Herr, all played with great effectiveness, as did setter Kaia Pixler, who is healthy after injuries impacted her 2023 campaign.

Middles Makenna Rumple (Iowa) and Kenna Cogill (Oregon) also stood out, as did liberos Olivia Lenz and Izzy Mahaffey,  who held down the serve receive and defensive side of the ball.

“The team seemed to be right in step with where they finished the 2023 season,” noted coach Aaron Payne.

***

Metro 17 Travel secured victory at the JVA Rock and Rumble in Cleveland. Stalwarts included Michigan commit Leni Stanton-Parker (averaging 4 kills per set throughout the tournament) and uncommitted 6-3 setter Isabelle Bardin.

“The tournament saw the team grow in confidence having only lost one match this season (earlier this month to Metro 18 travel),” said coach Sam Danai. “Metro 17 Travel dropped one set throughout the course of the weekend and navigated some difficult competition from both the Midwest and Canada.”

***

Metro 16 Travel also rocked and rumbled to a win in Cleveland with strong performances by RS Nadiya Johnson and outside hitter Caydence Doolan, along with valuable contributions from the entire team.

The competition was balanced and tough, but Metro 16 travel was able to come away with the victory while dropping only one set throughout the tournament.

“The team grew in confidence as the tournament progressed and the setters (Tayrn Su and Charis Burge) managed the matches better and better,” said coach Corey Hobson. “Defensively, the team was led by Laila Chadwick, a 2027 libero who made the switch from outside hitter last year.”

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