By Adam Burns
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On the biggest stage of the TC NIT, Munciana Samurai 18s was up for the challenge. Even if it was a daunting task.
The kids from Muncie, Indiana, bounced back after dropping the first set to take down star-studded Sunshine from Los Angeles (23-25, 25-22, 17-15) in a thrilling Elite Division Championship contest Monday afternoon inside Bartle Hall at the Kansas City Convention Center.
“They challenged us,” said Munciana outside hitter Eva Hudson, who recorded a match high 25 kills. “It was scary to come out here on the big stage, but to prevail is just amazing. We really came together as a team, which was great because (Sunshine) is such an amazing team.”
Highlighted by outside hitter Elia Rubin and setter Kelly Belardi – a pair of future Stanford Cardinal players – Sunshine boasted 11 Division I bound players out of the 12 on this weekend’s roster.
“How about that?” Munciana head coach and club owner Mike Lingenfelter said. “It had to be a street fight because they were so good.”
Like most of the match, the two sides stayed within two points of each other and endured 11 ties during the third and final set. Hudson and Lovie Wallace (uncommitted) each delivered a kill to knot the score at 14- and 15-all, respectively. Then, Hudson notched a crucial kill for a 16-15 lead prior to a game winning combined block from Wallace and North Carolina bound Ella Bostic.
“It was amazing,” Hudson said of her final kill. “I knew that I could swing away because my defense was going to cover me up. To have that confidence in each other is even that more amazing.”
Sunshine went 7-2 overall in the three-day NIT. On Championship Monday, they beat Tri-State Elite in straight sets (25-20, 25-21) and Skyline in two (25-23, 25-17). A5 Mizuno was the other club to beat Sunshine (28-26, 21-25, 15-5).
“The volleyball was very high level. (Munciana was) very, very tough,” Sunshine coach (LA) Ali Fathali Nejad said. “But we were happy because we had practiced for this situation. We were prepared and we knew this tournament was very tough. We had the path but unfortunately we had some errors. We have to go back and work.
“We’ll meet this team again in nationals and hopefully this tournament will prepare us for that.”
Munciana, which went 8-1 overall and beat Club V (25-13, 25-13) in the quarters and PVA Elite (25-18, 25-19) in the semis on Monday, relied heavily on the right arm and hops of the 6-foot-1 Hudson throughout the title match, especially late.
Hudson, who recently decommitted from Notre Dame due to the departure of former Irish coach Mike Johnson, hammered home eight of her team’s 17 points in the third set.
Lingenfelter wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I can tell you this,” he said. “In the last possession, if we got the transition, I told them to get it to (Hudson). She got us to the dance, so we’re going to dance with her. … That kid is as good a player as I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some pretty good ones. What’s amazing is that she’s a really gutsy player, but it’s something that’s lost in volleyball today; she’s got great volleyball IQ. She feels the game, I mean, and I think the special one’s do.”
Tight until the 20s in the first set, Sunshine used a 5-1 late run to claim the opener. The Los Angeles squad then started the second set strong with a 6-3 lead. However, a big-time block from Liberty University bound Brooke Elliott and kills from Wallace and Hudson ignited a Munciana 6-1 run and 9-7 lead. But, more importantly, a jolt of momentum and confidence.
“One of the questions I had coming in here was their tenacity and their willingness to win,” Lingenfelter said. “How hard are they willing to work?”
Sunshine responded, eventually tying it at 15-15 and 17-17 in the second set, but Hudson slammed home two kills and UMKC bound Kimora Whetstone added another kill to help send the title match into the decisive set claimed by the Indiana club.
And, of course, playing in front of a roaring crowd and an ESPN3 broadcast, Munciana came through in a big way.
“We’ve been fighting for these moments,” Hudson said, “so it just feels good to finally feel that glory.”