By Kyle Koso
KANSAS CITY, MO -- Volleyball is packed with mysterious changes in momentum, with weird and random bounces and shots that can turn a match on its head.
So when you've got something reliable and trusted, like the lineup of the Legacy Black 18 Elite team, you've got some insurance against the unexpected.
After last year's Legacy 18's (MI) took first place at the 2019 Triple Crown NIT, the next group moved up and measured up in every way, topping A5 Mizuno-Scott (GA) in straight sets Monday to earn the 18 Elite championship, 25-20, 28-26 at the Kansas City Convention Center. With a lineup that is an ideal blend of length, strength and speed, Legacy fought off two late set points in Game 2 and closed the door with a block from South Carolina commit Ellie Ruprich.
"What was amazing about today for us, from the first match and even previously, we played so cohesively. A lot of us have been together for five or six years now, so we know each other's tendencies," said setter Alexa Rousseau, who is headed to play at Northwestern. "We know what works, what to say to each other. Every part of our game was on, and as one. Our work as a team and our mental toughness helped us win."
Rousseau made a wise choice at 26-all in the third game, after she tried to dump the ball quickly over the net only to see A5 jump in and dig the ball. A few seconds later, Rousseau decided to soft-serve another shot, this time to an open spot in the back right of the court, making it 27-26 and setting the stage for Ruprich's last swing.
"We've been trying to find those places that work for me, because I know when we get into trouble I have to use myself as an option," Rousseau said. "Knowing it was there, having the confidence to go and redeem myself, I was playing and not thinking. It worked out."
A5 Mizuno had an early lead in Game 1, but a tip from Kendall Murray (Michigan) and an ace from Ruprich made it 21-16 for Legacy. Megan Dombrowski (West Virginia) punched a winner to make it 24-20, and a block from Lauren King (VCU) finished the game.
"Our team has a variety, we can swing anywhere on the court, and that's one of strengths here at the beginning of the year," said Murray, who was driving down shots all day. "We can hit from anywhere, use our speed, and we try to use that in every match. We tell each other all the time to focus on our side, do what we know how to do. It's a honor (to be relied upon), but I can't do anything without people around me. It's fun to play with my best friends, you really can't ask for anything more."
Legacy coach Bryan Lindstrom recalled how often this group played last year's 18 Black, and how frustrating it was to never beat them. The 2020 version certainly looks ready for its own run of successes.
"We got fifth at JO's and fifth here last year as 17's, and we battled (the 18's) every single day in practice and never won. Our mantra was, how do we follow that group up," Lindstrom said. "We had teams lined up that we were able to get revenge on, and after that our confidence was through the roof. Our libero, Kennedy (Dolmage, an Oakland commit) played out of her mind, and our setter is super tough to defend, whether she's hitting or dumping the ball.
"If that was us on Day 1, we would have lost that match. Our momentum picked up ... we had one of our middle go down Sunday, had a kid fill in, so we had that confidence and belief that we're not done until it is over."
by Kyle Koso
KANSAS CITY, MO -- In 2019, a group of volleyball players under the moniker of Club Iowa Select shocked mostly everyone attending the Triple Crown NIT, storming past national powerhouses to a second-pace finish in the 15 Elite division.
Minor changes to the roster, and a change of name to Club Ignit Select, didn't mask anything about the team's ability to excel against the best teams in the nation, as the 2020 TC NIT saw Club Ignit take charge in the 16 Elite bracket Monday, winning a three-set semifinal before coming back to top the Arizona Storm for the championship, 19-25, 25-21, 15-7 at the Kansas City Convention Center.
CIS didn't quite display all of its attributes in Game 1, while Arizona took command thanks to high-flying kills from Jordan Middleton and a mix of smart plays from Anita Babic, Laylah Daniel and others. Game 2 was a separate tale, with Hayden Kubik being asked to swing away and delivering multiple points as Ava Reynolds and setter Lauren Carter followed through with timely contributions.
And after back-to-back aces from Dasha Svitashev made it 19-17, CIS went on to split sets -- no one could forsee Game 3's path, where CIS used a 9-0 run to smooth its journey to the title.
"Some of (the Storm's) contact points are maybe a little different than other players we've seen, their offense is a little different ... it was important for our middles to identify (the hitters) and for us to defend," said CIS coach Tina Carter. "That's what we've been doing this whole weekend. Our ball control is what led us to this point."
And when able to stay in system, Lauren Carter can get the ball to CIS' assortment of weapons. Kubik scored four straight points to start Game 2; she had a critical winner to make it 23-21, and a couple of kills and two aces in Game 3 also proved huge, as CIS rode faith in itself while the Storm looked a bit tight in the latter stretches.
"I take it as I'm grateful for my teammates trusting me. Having them play with me is an awesome opportunity," Kubik said. "This year, we had a purpose, and we came here for a reason. The first set, we kind of sat back, so we said, 'we gotta go.' I don't really know how Game 3 happened, I just focused really hard on my serves and took a deep breath, kept going."
"I think that's what good players do," coach Carter said about Kubik's ability to dictate the moment. "She's got that high IQ, understands how to play big, play smart, use the block to her advantage, be aware she'll be targeted a lot, and I thought she responded really well."
Game 2 saw CIS in danger of losing in straight sets, to be sure. Arizona took a 17-16 lead on a kill from Kylie Moran, and Middleton got the Storm within 22-21 on a nice shot before CIS won the game on a Reynolds kill.
"This tournament just may be a little magical for us. Over three days, playing elite competition, it raises the confidence of the girls when we are having success," coach Carter said. "There's this genuine trust; I've had a lot of them since they were 12's, so they're used to each other, trusting that the person next to you is doing what they are supposed to.
"When you're playing teams that big and physical, you can't just run things straight ahead. Being able to stretch them a bit was a key."
Game 3 actually saw CIS down 3-1, but a block from Sam Schroeder changed the mood; a net-cord ace from Kubik made it 12-4, ending the run.
"This is my first year on the team, and it's really helped me being with all these players," Reynolds said. "They've made me better, I've made them better, and we really have come together as a team. We believed in our hearts (even after) Game 1 that we could win it. We needed to use every player to get it done. You can't be intimidated; you have to know your skills and trust your training, be confident and attack the ball at all times."
by Kyle Koso
KANSAS CITY, MO -- For the Drive Nation Red 15 Elite squad, Sunday's final match at the Triple Crown NIT unfolded at first like a highlight reel.
And while the plot shifted into more tense territory, Drive Nation (TX) refused to get flustered and made sure to capitalize on it many strengths, moving past Dynasty (KS) in two sets, 25-13, 25-22, to earn a spot in the 15 Elite quarterfinals of the Triple Crown NIT.
With setter Lily Nicholson dealing the ball, Drive Nation offensive forces Samantha Hoppes and Lauryn Hill simply overwhelmed everything in their path in Game 1, which got off to a bizarre start after a 10-minute delay that ended up wiping Dynasty's first two points off the scoreboard. Not only did the points come with ease, the Drive Nation defense was taking charge at the net - a block from Hoppes made it 18-8, and there was little debate at how the game would end.
Dynasty seemed refreshed after getting out of the first game and began to make Drive Nation sweat. A cluster of kills from Rylee Unruh and some timely swings by Adelyn Bybee pushed Dynasty up as much as 7-3 and 12-9, which got Drive Nation thinking about how to respond.
"I'm a very energetic person, and my team is very supportive. That's the best thing," said Hoppes. "I just try to take advantage of that moment and do my best. Sometimes, I don't always make the blocks, but I try not to get frustrated. When we got off the court (in between games), we decided we'd do what it takes and not let a ball hit the floor. We tried to stick together."
"I know I don't always have to put the ball down. I can look for high hands, and remember to breathe," said Hill, who was a little wild on two shots in Game 2 but nailed a key winner to tie it at 22-all. "We were trying not to freak out in Game 2, and remember that it's one point at a time. Whatever we put our minds to, we can do it, play not as individuals."
Drive Nation's roster is still rather new, so players and roles are still settling into place. Head coach Kevin Anderson has the comfort of not just two primary hammers in Hoppes and Hill, but other players who play well in big moments.
The team came back from those early Game 2 holes to take a 20-17 lead, only to see Dynasty sprint back ahead, 21-20. Alexa Grabow put one down to tie it at 21-all, and after Dynasty made an out-of-character error to fall behind 23-22, Autumn Perry finished it off for Drive Nation with two big-time kills.
"We had a hitting error, when we could have gone up 21-17; we had to battle back. We knew offensively that if we could stay in system, they wouldn't be able to stop us," Anderson said. "When (Hoppes and Hill) are rolling, we all are rolling, is what it comes down to. We are where we thought we should be; Saturday wasn't the best day for us, but we got in a rhythm today."
By Adam Burns
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They were one point away from earning their first set victory of the day. But then a key player fell to the ground in pain.
A knee injury forced Cleveland Volleyball Company middle hitter Sarah Karabatsos to the bench Sunday afternoon. The injury didn’t shake the CVC 14s. Instead, it ignited them.
Playing with passion, an energetic CVC rallied past Club V in straight-set fashion 25-22, 25-14 during open pool play of the Triple Crown NIT at the Kansas City Convention Center.
“We were all heartbroken at the beginning, so we wanted to do well for her,” libero Sara Snowbarger said. “Our whole team just came together. We just said ‘let’s go’ and show them what we can do and don’t give up.”
Fortunately for CVC, after the scare, Karabatsos was deemed OK and even cleared to play, according to CVC coach Ron Gasper.
“She has never been injured so she was freaked out,” Gasper said. “We tried to get her back in but the sub rule (came into play).”
Despite not having Karabatsos at its disposal the rest of the way, CVC quickly found a rhythm. With an extra pep in its step, too. After a competitive first set with Utah-based Club V, CVC logged the first five points of set No. 2 to gain momentum. CVC added a pair of 5-0 runs to extend its lead to 16-4 to take full control.
Snowbarger, who’s competing up as an 11-year-old, credited the team’s togetherness for the rally.
“I feel like in tough games and situations like that, it’s just so much easier to get through the game because our team supports each other,” she said.
Gasper agreed, adding with a laugh, “We never have any issues, but sometimes you want them to forget that they're friends a bit.”
This was just the beginning of CVC’s Sunday. The squad, now 2-2 on the tourney, continued pool play on Sunday prior to the reseeding of the division later this evening. They’ll conclude play in the NIT on Monday.
“They’re competing at a level which is new for them, which is nice,” Gasper said. “This was a really big win for us. We’re normally fighting tooth and nail to just find a rhythm, so I think (playing in) the afternoon is the secret.”
Not that Gasper’s exactly surprised by the result. It turns out some coaching on his end may have played a role.
“We’ve been working a lot on their mental game this year,” he said. “And I’m as happy as I can be after seeing how they reacted to the adversity. They stepped up, and it made me super happy.”
by Matthew Antonic
After winning the first set convincingly over VC United, the Houston Stellar found themselves in a tied second set, 8-8, in 17u pool play Sunday afternoon.
Then it rattled off a point. And another. And another. The floodgates opened, the Stellar could do no wrong, and only after a 10-0 run did VC United temporarily stop the bleeding.
The dominant stretch propelled the Stellar to a win in straight sets (25-20, 25-18) as action continued at the Triple Crown NIT.
“We just kept up our serves and our offense was great,” Talitha Lew said. “We just kept going and communicating with each other.”
When the Stellar had pushed the lead to 12-8, VC United called a timeout, but it did nothing to slow down the Texas-based side. The team’s system was being executed to perfection.
Lew was an anchor for the Stellar defensively, helping keep the team organized while VC United attempted to rally back. It did momentarily knock on the door near the end, cutting the Stellar lead to 23-18.
However, Lew and the Stellar would not be denied the victory, with the team scoring two final emphatic points at the net to cap off the victory.
Blakely Montgomery said the team’s efforts in practice have paid off during the tournament.
“We worked a lot with our middles creating splits for outside,” she said, “and with everybody going hard all the time even when they make mistakes.”
Montgomery also praised the team’s ball movement, which was consistent all match and caused several defensive issues for VC United.
The Stellar players have shown off their creativity during the tournament at the Kansas City Convention Center, along with their energy as a team.
“Today, we started off a little quiet, but then we got really hyped,” Lew said.
Lew and Montgomery were as energetic as anyone on the court, constantly offering praise for the many good plays made by their teammates.
Stellar coach Christian Dunn was pleased as he watched his team record a strong win from the sideline. The key to this group’s skill on the court, he said, is the familiarity of players who have been together for many seasons.
”The core group of these girls have played together for a long time, and we added some pieces that we thought could take us to the next level this year,” Dunn said, “and they’ve done a good job filling in where they should be and progressing.”
At this level, Dunn said, coaches are always stressing communication to players. When the Stellar are talking, he said, dominant stretches of play like the one on display Sunday will naturally follow.
“When they’re communicating with each other, sometimes they get on a roll and they’re unstoppable. Playing with each other for so long, it just works,” he said.