by Kyle Koso
If Kristin Perkins had to watch her team get bounced from the 13 Elite title match at the Triple Crown NIT on Monday, she wasn’t going to sit around and just hope the Milwaukee Sting Gold would stumble into solutions.
After the Sting dropped the first set to MadFrog 13 National by a resounding score of 25-8, Perkins ordered a full reset, with positions, approaches and attitudes all given a fresh look. It took a while, as the Sting also trailed for portions of set two, but eventually they doused some of MadFrog’s hitting prowess and fought their way to an 8-25, 25-22, 15-13 victory at the Kansas City Convention Center.
After feeling whatever the opposite of momentum is in set one, the Sting slowly unleashed its own solid group of hitters and applied heavy pressure as Natalie Surges and Ali Beers put down numerous shots. It was a bit of a shock, really, after that rough beginning.
“That wasn’t our best set of the weekend. We looked to each other – we put blame on each other in the first set, but we had to internalize that and work hard as a team,” head coach Perkins said. “We switched our blocking schemes, moved blockers over, changed the defense and we were able to pickup more balls. We have a lot of (offensive) variety, and we also have three setters, which is a drastically different style.
“That helped offset some of what they did on the other side of the court. Our setters made the difference, they gave our hitters the opportunity to see some higher balls, give us more time to put it down.”
Down 13-9 in set two, the Sting used a cluster of kills from Beers to get stable and then let the lineup roll with great swings from Holly Hawthorne, Ireland Zyzo and Surges, the latter who had the final kill of the set.
“We always say it’s time to come together, don’t play as individuals but try to play as a team,” said Beers about responding to early adversity. “We tried to focus, settle down, see what we did wrong and try to change it. Finally, it started coming together. People were getting kills, and we just kept going with that.”
MadFrog had beaten the Sting on Sunday in two sets, another match where the Sting got off to a slow start. But by the third set Monday, it looked much different. An ace from libero Addison Bruns gave Milwaukee a 9-6 lead; MadFrog came back to tie it at 10-all on a block from Simone Heard and then took a 12-10 lead.
Kills from Surges and Zyzo, an ace from Cassidy Bruns and a net violation pushed the Sting ahead, 14-12 – an errant swing by MadFrog notched the final point.
“We needed some energy, and after our bench was able to provide that, it carried onto the court, and then it seemed carry through to everyone,” Hawthorne said. “We were able to make it happen. We learned (from Sunday) where they hit and where we needed to be on the court, understood their plays. After we got some kills, we knew what we had and could get something done.”
While the Triple Crown Volleyball NIT was shifted from February to May because of the pandemic, several teams from the MadFrog club program in suburban Dallas were more than ready to shine despite the shift in routine.
One team that definitely handled the disruption in fine fashion was the MadFrog 12 Elite Green squad, which swept all three of its matches on Monday to claim the 12 Elite title at the Kansas City Convention Center.
“Triple Crown is such a competitive tournament and I always look forward for my team to compete in it. This year was no different. We struggled on day one and dropped a match to another talented Texas team, but my girls came through the rest of the weekend,” said 12’s head coach Stephanie Lewellen. “We talked a lot about positive body language and energy after the first day of play, in which we were lacking both.
"The team responded well to our conversation, the constructive criticism and came out on day two and three ready to take care of business. I am so proud of my team. We are ready to put in the work for the final performance of the season (the junior national championship).”
MadFrog started Monday with a 25-19, 25-11 victory over Mavs KC, then prevailed in the semifinals with an impressive 25-9, 25-14 win over Premier Nebraska. In the final, Dynasty Black put up some significant resistance in moments, but MadFrog had the answers in a 25-18, 25-23 victory.
“I know this is probably the only year that Triple Crown will happen in May, but I love that we got to compete at this level before nationals. This was a great warm up tournament for us as we head to Vegas,” Lewellen said. “Communication has been an issue for us all season long. Sometimes we would rather try to win a game as six individual players rather than as a team — one unit.
“The matches or sets that we won by a wide margin definitely were in part due to the communication, teamwork and consistency. We have some big hitters, but those big hits wouldn’t be possible without the good passing and setting.”
The MadFrog 12’s finished the 2021 TC NIT with a record of 8-1 overall, winning 16 of its 18 sets played.
by Cody Thorn
The Houston Skyline Royal 17 Royal made quick work of Orlando Tampa Volleyball Academy 17 Jason in the Triple Crown National Invitational Tournament 17 Elite finals, though the biggest win may have come earlier in the day.
Skyline won 2-0 (25-10, 25-18) to wrap up an 8-1 showing over the three-day tournament at the Kansas City Convention Center.
The journey to the title match included a revenge win for Jen Woods’ squad, starting with a three-set win over Texas Advantage Volleyball Black 17 in the first match on Monday.
“No one (team) in Skyline has won Triple Crown so it is pretty exciting,” said Skyline opposite hitter Logan Lednicky, a Texas A&M pledge. “The finals maybe wasn’t as exciting as we hoped but we fought hard to get here. We lost to TAV on Day one and came in and beat them this morning in three. It is always a big competition between two really good clubs in Texas. It was a big win for us.”
After that game, Skyline Royal beat Arizona Storm 17 Thunder in two sets and followed with another convincing win over the Clearwater-based squad in the finals. The two teams met on Sunday and Skyline won in two sets there as well, winning 25-19 and 25-13.
In the finals, Skyline Royal scored six of the first seven points. OTVA came back after the slow start and the next 12 points were split evenly. A kill by Lily Frierson cut the deficit to 12-7 but Skyline Royal rattled off six points in a row to build an 18-7 lead. After that run was halted, Skyline Royal scored four in a row, with kills coming from North Florida commit Kierstyn McFall and LSU commit Maddie Waak.
A kill by the left-handed swinging Lednicky ended the first set.
OTVA took its first and only lead early in the second set, jumping ahead 6-4 after a 3-0 run that took advantage of errors by Skyline Royal. A combo block by Bailey Hanner and McFall allowed the Texans to tie the set at 8-8. Before that, the team got a kill from outside hitter Alexis Dacosta, a Baylor commit.
Skyline Royal pushed the lead to 13-8, which forced OTVA coach Jason Partington to call a timeout to regroup his team. The brief respite worked and the Floridians scored three of the next four points. However, OTVA didn’t pull any closer than three points the rest of the way.
That came at 20-17 on a return error but kills by Morgan Perkins – an Oklahoma pledge – and Dacosta pushed the advantage back to five for Skyline Royal. Of the 13 players for Skyline Royal in Kansas City, nine of 12 2022 graduates are already committed to Division I programs.
The second set ended with a net violation on OTVA, which made it 25-18 and capped off six wins in a row for the Houston-based program.
“From day one’s first point to today, it is a grind and it is a battle with all of these quality teams from all over the country,” Partington said. “We worked hard all year and we still got work to do. There is some amazing competition to get to the finals. It’s not the outcome wanted but it is OK. We still got work to do for AAU and JO (Junior Olympics).”
OTVA went 6-3 in the tournament, losing twice to Royal and then losing to Sunshine 17 LA in the opener. Those two met again in the first match on Sunday and OTVA won 27-25 and 29-27 in two long sets to reach the semifinals. OTVA then dispatched Tri-State Elite 17 Blue 2-0 (25-15 and 25-19) in the semifinals.
“The finals wasn’t as exciting but that was a good team, I just don’t think they had enough in the tank after what they poured into Sunshine,” Woods said of OTVA. “The path getting there (to the finals) is tough.”
Lednicky led Skyline Royal with 10 kills. As a team, Skyline Royal had a hitting percentage of .426.
Skyline Royal will prepare next for a trip to Las Vegas for the USAV Tournament in July.
“This was a tough tournament but it is a lot like nationals coming up in July,” said outside hitter Nina Moorer, who led Skyline Royal with 14 digs. “It will be a lot of the same teams and a lot of good teams. This was a good pre-tournament for that.”
by Matt Antonic
It was the end of the line for the Club Pohaku 18 & Under team on Monday. A priceless chance for a happy ending.
High school graduation had come and gone. For all but two Pohaku players, the 18's championship matchup at the Triple Crown NIT against Club Invasion would be their final time on the court together, a conclusion to their club sports career.
Chances for happy endings in sports seldom present themselves, and for both teams Monday, a moment had arrived to write the final chapter on their terms. The team that would ascend to the stage to claim the trophy would be the one who had more desire.
It was the countless diving efforts that said Pohaku wanted it more. It was the ferocious effort to defend at the net. It was the increasing volume of screams coming from the bench and from the crowd. Everybody was on a mission. It was the incredible execution at the end of both sets.
Pohaku completed their final conquest of the Memorial Day weekend of the NIT, toppling Invasion in straight sets (27-25, 25-20) at the Kansas City Convention Center.
What began as a weekend full of possibilities ended in triumph, and it was obvious just how much it meant. Coaches embraced on the sideline. Players shed tears of joy. The final team photo op came with a banner proclaiming it champions.
It was this Pohaku age group’s first year together with the club, meaning it had to start at the bottom of the rankings. There was nowhere to go but up. If you asked anyone on the club, however, they would tell you the sky was the limit.
“We started from the bottom of every bracket,” Pohaku player Aubrey Lapour said. “We were ranked last in every tournament. Every outing, we kept going higher and higher.
The climb resulted in a second place finish at nationals, but it wasn’t first. That was more than enough motivation for Pohaku. “We had to top it,” Lapour said.
For coach Conan Salanoa, the final championship win was the culmination of the improvement his club had made since they came together. His experienced team had been tested time and time again, and was more than prepared for the final exam.
“They were used to it,” he said. “Being in the championship match at nationals, I think it helped them there and helped us win today.”
Pohaku didn’t spend it’s time before the match obsessing over strategy. It was about playing hard and overcoming challenges.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Salanoa said. “We had one girl playing with a stress fracture, another with tendinitis, but they know how to earn things. To overcome that was wonderful.”
For Lauren Wheeler, the win was about settling the nerves. The team made a string of mistakes midway through each set that gave Invasion the lead. “We definitely got a little frantic,” she said. “We didn’t get down on ourselves. We didn’t have anyone getting in their heads.”
For most of Pohaku, the future is now. Many players will go on to play high-level volleyball at the collegiate level, the next stop in their sporting journeys. Lapour said she sees nothing but good things on the horizon for the people she says she considers family.
“I don’t think there is any ceiling for these girls,” she said. “With the amount of passion they have for the game and heart, they can do anything.”
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.”