by Kyle Koso
With even just a quick scan of the lineup for the A5 16 Gabe squad, there’s undeniable talent in all corners of the roster, and the team certainly has all the pieces required to win matches.
That’s why it was the ultimate head-scratcher Monday at the 16 Elite championship match of the Triple Crown NIT when A5 fell behind by 11 points (16-5) against Legacy at the Kansas City Convention Center. To their credit, A5 (out of Georgia) assembled an impressive comeback to at least make set one interesting, before truly finding their touch in what became a 22-25, 25-22, 15-12 victory in the title match.
A5 even trailed 12-8 in set two; however, the percolating offensive muscle from players like Ashley Sturzoiu, Sydney Bray and Jaidyn Garcia really began to take hold to level the competitive energy of the matchup. Those downer moments have been part of the process all year, according to A5 coach Gabe Aramian.
“It’s bizarre, but not as bizarre as you’d think. We’ve had to come back a lot this tournament, but the word that defines us is ‘resilient,’” Aramian said. “We’re not the biggest or the most physical team, but we just keep playing and refuse to lose. Legacy’s used to being at the top all the time, the defending champions, so we had a lot of things going against us.
“Every match we played, every team we played was tough, there were no gimme matches. We knew we had to play excellent the whole time … we maybe didn’t all the time, but we always finished excellent.”
Legacy secured the first set after an amazing dig from Allison Berent and a net cord ace from setter Erin Kline, who had a stellar match from start to finish. In set two, A5 got points from multiple sources, polishing off the moment with kills from Sturzoiu and Milana Thornton.
“It was the championship, the thing you work on for the entire season. We had nothing to lose after the first set,” Sturzoiu said. “Over and over throughout the season in those pressure moments, you learn to rely on each other and how to build trust. Build each other up even if there is a mistake … I just felt like, this is something we just have to do.”
The third set saw Legacy jump ahead again, 7-4, on a kill from Laurece Abraham, and it was 11-11 on a kill from Legacy’s Harper Murray. Sturzoiu had a fearless swing to make it 12-11, and the match ended on a shot from Garcia. It marked the end of an imprssive journey, with A5 winning two other three-set matches (vs. KC Power and MadFrog) on Monday to reach the finals.
“We always battle and fight to get to the finish. We knew every play mattered, so we went all out,” Bray said. “We knew the comeback in the first set was a big accomplishment, and we knew we needed to keep that momentum for the rest of the way. We call ourselves the runts, and we are excited to do this. We battled with everyone.”
And if there was one lingering theme, it was widespread appreciation for the skills of libero Arya Jue, who dug up one impossible ball after another for A5.
“Arya stepped up big throughout the tournament, the whole season, but really was amazing in the tournament from beginning to end,” Aramian said.
“I read (the hitters), just kept my platform steady,” Jue said. “There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s a lot of fun, too. I love my position a lot. We knew we were going to win – we just kept fighting and eventually won. That’s the first time we’ve beaten them in like four years.”