By Kyle Koso
It’s a little crazy to ever question the Munciana Samurai 18’s, even when it seems like they will run out of time before finding an answer.
With a game and a half in the books Monday at the Triple Crown Volleyball NIT, Munciana was down 0-1 and staring at a five-point deficit against Legacy in the title match of the 18 Elite, so calling the situation bleak might have actually been charitable. But the Samurai (who won the 18’s here a year ago) first pulled even, then ahead, then used all their numerous skills and resources to win Game 3, posting a 18-25, 26-24, 15-13 victory at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
After falling behind 16-11 in Game 2, Munciana got a couple aces from Megan Miller (who will play at Nebraska next year), kills from Jonni Parker (Penn State) and Bonnie Bostic (Yale, 2019) and a few timely mistakes by Legacy to take a 19-18 lead. At 23-all, the match’s longest point played out, ending with a Parker kill, and two more kills from her secured the game and the roots of an amazing comeback.
In Game 3, Munciana never allowed itself to get in serious trouble again. A bizarre-looking karate-chop shot from Bostic flipped over the net and to the ground for game point, and an error by Legacy finished the drama.
“It’s the passion that we all have. We are a team full of winners, and we hate to lose,” said Alyiah Wells, whose offensive prowess played a huge role in keeping Munciana in touch. “We owed it to ourselves after winning the second game that we should push to the end. We didn’t put enough service pressure on them early, and they could play in system a lot. It’s a lot easier to set in system, and it’s harder for the defense to read.”
Munciana will practice coming back from deficits as large as 15 points, but to see them pull off this type of comeback in a national-scale championship is a different thing altogether. Legacy certainly made it interesting, featuring a fleet of tenacious and skilled hitters, as well as a rock-wall defense.
“We were able to flip the switch and began to bring the energy we didn’t start with in that second set,” said Parker, who consistently provides the set, kill, block or dig her team needs at a given moment. “We got on a run, and that gave us the momentum we needed. We had to make adjustments and began to get some (good play) under our belt. We are fighting to get to June, our end goal, and this type of competition is definitely good for that.”
Munciana coach Mike Lingenfelter simply thought the refuse-to-lose mindset of his roster, baked into the team from countless hours of preparation, made the difference.
“We finally got a run, we needed three together I told them … that one part of the second game was the only time we had a run, and we needed that,” he said. “I told them this in one of the huddles -- every kid on this team has won a national championship except for one, and that kid has two state championships. That DNA kicks in at some point, and it’s part of the legacy we’ve built.
“This event is second to none. I looked at all the other President’s Day tournaments going on, and kudos to them all … we host one ourselves … but there’s no comparison to this event in regards to competition, event management, hospitality. To win this is a big deal because 90 percent of the big-time teams are in this thing. It’s a special win.”
By Kyle Koso
Given the caliber of teams at the Triple Crown Volleyball NIT, it certainly follows that close games and tight matches are the standard experiences for teams.
The pressure of deadlocked scores and the desire for anything resembling an edge certainly was on the minds of all at the 16 Elite title match Monday, with OTVA and Wave both showing strengths that had to be respected. But in Game 1, a 17-all tie eventually went to OTVA, and a Game 2 13-all tie also tipped OTVA’s way, giving them a 25-19, 25-16 victory at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
Sydney Conley’s work at the net on defense, and some wicked swings on offense, made the difference in Game 1, with Lauren Gips muscling up nicely on Game 2. In the end, OTVA kept hanging around on the scoreboard until their tactics and talents made the difference in the stretch run.
“We were able to figure out what the other side was doing, and then make the adjustments. We were good up through the middle of the game and could then finish them out,” said OTVA coach Roberto Santasofia. “I’m proud of the girls; we can make adjustments just like that, and this was a good tournament.”
This OTVA unit, with three different players, won the 15 Elite at this tournament in 2017, so there’s not a lot that rattles this roster. That trait was even more evident earlier Monday, when they had to come back from a game down to Coast before working their way through to a 21-235, 25-20, 15-12 victory.
“The first games of the day, I guess you could say we weren’t woken up. But after the second set when we know what they are running, things usually go better for us,” said setter Cierra Jenkins, whose left-handed skill set shined the entire match whether she needed a kill or an assist. “Our blocking improved whenever it got close in the final. We noticed how different teams progressed from last year, so we need to get in the gym and work harder. We need to work on getting off to a good start.”
“We didn’t have our best match individually, but as a team and group and family, it was awesome. We were able to come back, and that was a very good team on the other side,” said Santasofia about the Coast comeback.
One of the team’s backbones is clearly libero Ellie McKissock, who kept countless points alive with her back-row dives. She began noticing her ability to affect competition with her speed at age 12, while playing basketball.
“We came out a little timid with our serving (in the final), but we got a lead with our serving after a while,” she said. “That put some pressure on them. And it’s very comfortable on our side when you have 6-foot-1, 6-foot-3, people on your team. They’ll cover you, and they have to find those holes in the defense.”
The Arizona Storm 15 Elite team played eight matches at the Triple Crown Volleyball NIT and lost only one to Texas Advantage Black, before closing out Aspire (another program from Arizona) in the championship game Monday, 28-26, 25-22.
After losing to TAV in their first match of the tournament, the Storm won seven straight with wins over Mad Frog and A5 Mizuno on Saturday, followed that with sweeps of K2, Skyline and Sunshine on Sunday, then worked past Mad Frog again Monday before prevailing in the final.
By Kyle Koso
Aside from fielding a profoundly talented squad at the Triple Crown Volleyball NIT, Terri Spann made sure her 14 Elite Arizona Storm team could flex another important quality – that of being prepared.
The Storm earned their way to the 14 Elite championship match and played with the comfort and ease normally found at a backyard party, taking down Wave by a score of 25-12, 25-19. It was one of three Elite age group championships for the Storm this year, which has always been a force at the TC NIT except for a slight drop-off in 2017.
This time around, Spann’s 14’s were unaffected by playing on the TV court (the match was broadcast by ESPN3), while Wave never got comfortable despite owning some impressive wins along the way to the showdown.
“I’ve always known we had the pieces; this is a great group of girls. They are experienced and knowledgeable, and I challenge them daily,” said Spann, whose team saw Wave close to within 22-19 in Game 2 before finishing the task on big kills from Jordan Middleton and Laylah Daniels. “We had one of the toughest routes through the tournament, but we embrace that. We are used to the championship court, because that’s how I train these girls mentally. We’re not competing for a 14 Open event in Arizona – we’re competing for a national, high-level title.”
One boost of confidence came when the Storm beat OTVA in Sunday’s pool play, as the result was reversed at USA Nationals last year as 13’s. The Storm also showed some serious mettle in a three-set pool-play win over Nebraska Premier on Sunday, a contest that had at least 100 onlookers and no shortage of cheering for either side.
That clearly made Monday much easier to manage.
“We were communicating in practice and working hard; we had a lot of motivation coming in because we knew our rivals (OTVA) would be here,” said Daniels, one of several punishing hitters on the roster. “We like to go out and have fun; that’s the best way to play. We have a lot of dominant players and an amazing libero (McKenna Douglas) who gets everything up. We’ve played together for about three years, so we are like a family.”
The Storm’s setter, Tatum Thomas, had her choice of hitters that were on target Monday; to make it tougher on opponents, Thomas is also very cerebral and aware of the best percentage play out there.
“I look at the block closely; you have to see what block is up, the height, and who is doing well as a hitter … all that,” said Thomas. “We knew we were the underdogs coming into this tournament, and we had to work hard and come in hungry. I think it’s really cool that we get to play at the same club with the same coaching so many great players have done.”
By Marcos Aragon
The old but often accurate saying of “defense wins championships” is exactly how the Arizona Storm captured the 17 Elite title over Sunshine Westside on Monday at the Triple Crown Volleyball NIT in Salt Lake City.
The Storm stumbled in places early but rallied in time behind stellar defense and precision hitting to post a hard-earned three setter, 18-25, 25-15, 15-13.
As the Storm blocked out the Sunshine for the championship, head coach Jami Rolfes along with setter Shannon Shields and outside hitter Amber Stivrins all pointed to libero Nicole Hoff as the main component for the team’s victory.
“(Hoff) doesn’t get a lot of credit; she is a stud,” explained Rolfes, “She kept us in this match. She made some amazing plays. I couldn’t be more proud of that kid.”
“I think I wanna give a shout out to Nicole, our libero for that one,” said Stivrins. “She really showed up and balled out there.”
“I feel like the middle back and Nicole really were able to see the shots and pick them up,” Shields added.
Shutting down the offense of Sunshine was no easy task. In the first set, Sunshine hitters were able to get past the Storm blockers and knock down easy kills. The back row defense for Sunshine along with their blockers up front sealed great blocks, and the hitters from Storm were held in check.
From the second set on, the Storm came out more aggressively and began to play like an entirely different team. The hitting angles for Stivrins and Kate Grimmer opened up like freeway lanes, and they got to work immediately. Stivrins said it was more of a “mental block” for the team which is used to attacking long blockers like Sunshine’s, and the shots started to fall after the mental block was removed.
“We got in our head and thought we had to do crazy shots to get around it, when really we just had to play our game and control our side of the net,” Stivrins admitted.
“It was a lot of a confidence thing,” said Rolfes. “When there’s big blockers, you tend to not swing as hard or just don’t swing the same. I was just trying to build up their confidence to not be afraid of the block and go after it.”
One of the themes of the tournament that the Storm implemented involved grit. After losing the first set, the Storm poured it on Sunshine, 25-15. The final set was the gritty affair where the Storm jumped out early but couldn’t close out Sunshine until a service error gave the Storm the title, 15-13.
“I am so excited, it’s beyond words. This whole tournament we’ve made strides,” said Rolfes, “To keep playing at a high level and after losing game one, it wasn’t our best, and just to stay in it and stay confident and know that we were capable of coming back. These girls are fighters.”
Despite the Storm losing the first set, their confidence level never seemed to dwindle. They kept their heads up and continued to play their style of volleyball.
“I feel like we really, really wanted it,” said Shields.
“This year we really picked it up and showed up. It’s always fun to play at your best,” said Stivrins.