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.