By Matt Antonic
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Milwaukee Sting coach Dave Bayer acknowledged that his squad had started this season a bit slower than he would have liked. But after a scintillating Saturday afternoon victory against Club Excel, the Sting are off and running at the Triple Crown NIT.
Bayer’s club won in straight sets (25-14), (25-23), and controlled play for large stretches of the match. With the win, the Sting advance to the 16 Elite quarterfinals.
“We grew up a little bit today,” Bayer said. “We didn’t freak out. That’s kind of been our MO early in the season, and they handled themselves extremely well today. I’m pretty proud of them.”
The Milwaukee-based Sting won the first set in one of the day’s more lopsided scores, 25-14. The team’s attacking prowess simply overwhelmed Excel. “The energy was really good and that helped us a lot,” said Katie Winkler. “When we have a lot of energy we play really well. We played a lot more confident and cool today.”
Winkler thought that the team’s focus on mental preparation was helpful in the second set, which featured a much more determined and organized Excel side. “We’ve worked a lot on our mental side of the game. Like picking each other up and moving on, and it definitely showed here today,” he said.
The Excel rallied, but the Sting came out on top in the second set, 25-23.
“We keep getting better and better every time we get in the gym,” Bayer said. “This has been a great tournament, great event for us, always seeing the best competition every time we take the floor here.”
The Triple Crown NIT, featuring nearly 600 teams, has brought out the competitive spirit in the thousands of players, coaches and club administrators that have descended on Kansas City. Monday’s final rounds are a treat to be a part of, Bayer said, but was careful to note that the biggest things the Sting will take away from the weekend are improvement and confidence.
“We’re not even worried about the end result of these matches,” he said. "We’re just trying to get better every time we take the floor, whether it’s here at Triple Crown, or when we get back in the gym Tuesday for practice.
That isn’t to say that his club doesn’t have their eyes on the prize. The Sting will face Club Elevation on Monday.
“A win like this is going to really help us tomorrow going into the last eight teams,” Morgan Yenter said. “We know our main goal is the championship.”
By Adam Burns
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kokoro 18s are back on the right track.
After a 1-2 opening day, the Minnesota-based team bounced back with a three-win Sunday in the club division of the Triple Crown Sports NIT inside the Kansas City Convention Center.
Kokoro, of St. Paul, capped the perfect Sunday with a straight-set victory (25-22, 25-20) over Evansville United. Kokoro also beat TStreet-Taylor (19-25, 25-23, 15-13) and Club V (25-16, 25-21).
“It’s exciting for us,” Kokoro coach Sam Sullivan said. “We didn’t have the day that we wanted on the first day.”
The turnaround and victory against Evansville United puts Kokoro into the club division championship round, which starts Monday.
“To turn things around today and earn a spot in the (club) championship bracket is exciting,” Sullivan said. “It gives us an opportunity for us to end the tournament on a high note.”
Kokoro outside hitter Abby Widiker indicated that her team overcame more than just a 1-2 start to the tournament.
“It’s been really nice especially with losing our outside who came down with the flu last night,” Widiker said. “For everyone to adjust into new roles, not be afraid and aggressive, was really good. We brought a lot of energy and we were really aggressive.”
Widiker, a Missouri Science & Technology commit, registered a game-high 10 kills.
“They definitely put me in a great position with some nice balls, giving me a lot of opportunities,” Widiker said of her teammates. “The line was open and they pushed it far nice.”
The first set between Kokoro and Evansville saw 11 ties and eight lead changes. Kokoro put together a 5-0 run to pull away from an 18-all deadlock, which led them to the three-point win.
Evansville kept the second set close until it trailed by six at 23-17. The Indiana-based squad then scored three straight before Widiker sealed the deal with a match-clinching kill.
Now, with a rough opening day in the rear-view mirror, Kokoro has its sights on championship Monday.
“It gave us a little bit of confidence going into the last day,” Sullivan said. “We have some good momentum now and we’re getting into a rhythm.”
By Adam Burns
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There may be a rivalry brewing between the TK Legends and K2 Adidas 18-year-old elite squads.
Two weeks after falling to K2 in straight sets, the Legends 18s flipped the script on K2 with a come-from-behind 2-1 (22-25, 25-22, 15-12) victory in the Triple Crown Sports NIT on Sunday afternoon inside the Kansas City Convention Center.
With the win, TK Legends, of Georgia, advanced to the quarterfinal round.
“It feels great,” TK Legends outside hitter Caitlin O’Farrell said. “They beat us in their own tournament in the finals. So coming back and beating them was really refreshing.”
TK Legends coach Suzanne Fitzgerald was just as pleased.
“They've struggled with that all season; they get in a hole and don’t know how to get it out of it,” she said. “There (are) veterans on this team and newcomers as well, so we’re still learning how to get out of those moments. To do it in that situation, a must-win situation, that’s the best feeling.”
In the first set, K2 Adidas, of Tennessee, pulled away from 18-18 to finish on a 7-4 run.
“It’s a typical match that we like to play in the first set; we got them out of sorts and made them a little bit one-dimensional,” K2 Adidas coach Jason Hames said.
TK Legends fell into a 10-5 hole in the second set, but they worked out of the deficit with an 8-1 run to take a 13-11 lead. The rest of the second set saw eight ties and six lead changes. But it was the strong attack of O’Farrell, Riley Spurlin and Jordan Rush, who respectively put away kills for the final three of four points to force a third set.
“The second set was a close one and then they made the plays at the end to win it,” Hames said. “You got to put good teams away. We had an opportunity there to put away a very good team, and we just didn’t do that.”
O’Farrell, an Ohio commit who finished with 10 kills, had three kills and Gabby Gonzalez put away two of her game-high 15 kills in the final set. TK Legends used a 5-1 run to take command with a 12-8 lead.
K2 Adidas cut the lead to two twice, the last at 14-12 just before O’Farrell put away the game with her final kill.
“It was a great team effort,” O’Farrell said. “We got down, but we fought back and started off strong in the second set and then come back in the third set with all of our intensity and overpower them.”
By Matt Antonic
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When Mintonette took the court against Coast, it found itself undersized, as it usually is.
Coast took advantage in the first set, controlling the pace with superior length and organization. Then Mintonette remembered why it was here at the Triple Crown NIT, with its 88-8 record last season and phenomenal technical ability.
Mintonette (Ohio) dominated the final two sets, defeating Coast (CA) on Saturday and proving why it was one of the tournament favorites, 19-25, 25-21, 15-10.
While Mintonette would eventually get rolling, it was Coast who came out looking like the better team, playing with a higher level of energy as it jumped to what looked like an easy six-point win in the first set.
“Our energy was definitely different in the second and third sets than it was in the first,” said Mintonette’s Emily Londot. “We came out kind of slow.”
A strong start to the second set provided the necessary energy boost, and Mintonette coach Max Murphy said that a high level of energy and strong fundamentals were necessary to combat the size gap. Coast was no longer able to use its size to dominate, and trailed for most of the match.
“We talked about our first contact, our first contact in the first set was not very good,” Murphy said. “We’re an undersized team at this level, and if our first contact is not there we’re gonna get pushed around and beat up.”
Mintonette asserted itself in the third set, and managed to inflict frustration on Coast players and coaches. With the set tied at four, Mintonette managed to come out on top of the longest rally of the day, prompting parents and players on the bench to fly out of their seats. Mintonette held a 5-4 lead and would not surrender it the rest of the way, winning the third set 15-10.
“I think our kids, at least for this team, their identity is just to be resilient,” Murphy said. “We went 88-8 last year, and we get punched in the mouth a lot on the first set. The resiliency of our kids and just the calm nature of how they control their emotions, a lot of it is just to kind of pick away and start to believe and then pull the match out.”
There was plenty of excitement among the Mintonette parents, and the players were just as enthused, but were remarkably cool as they gathered in their post-game huddle. As one of the tournament favorites, Stodot said it was important to perform at a high level but also to remain composed. Once they are out on the court and communicating, the fun begins.
“We know we are good when we are working together and talking and having fun,” Our team does really well when we have fun,” Stodot said.
“This team was picked to win the tournament,” Murphy added, “so we’re happy to get that past us and now it's on to the next one.”
By Kyle Koso
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – With a deep roster of springy, strong and athletic volleyball players, the Rockwood Thunder 15 Elite is a lot to handle when unleashing its full powers.
That doesn’t mean the production is easy to perform, and in fact the Thunder were quite off-script in their match Saturday against Asics KIVA Red at the Triple Crown NIT. Already down a game, the Thunder whiffed on a simple pass, then got their wires crossed on a play where the ball fell unaccompanied to the floor, making it 11-all and forcing coach Chris Reid to call a timeout.
Emotions seemed a bit agitated, but the Thunder worked it out and won their first Power Pool match at the event, 20-25, 25-19, 15-12 – even the end was a strain, as they had a 14-7 lead in Game 3 that nearly went the other way.
“It’s about trusting the work you’ve put in the gym. There’s stuff that happens on the floor, and if you bring that into what you’re trying to do, it’s just a big distraction,” Reid said. “We’ve done so many reps on what we are trying to run … trust our stuff, the percentages are going to work out, and we have to let the craziness go.
“Now, communication is something we can control. Ambiguity is not going to work for us, so we have to do our jobs, and see what happens.”
The match was dogged by service errors on both sides, and KIVA had success spreading the opportunities around as Oliva Fish and Tess Schrenger were notably strong in finishing off kills. But there were flashes when Rockwood began to announce its intentions, as Vanessa Polk, Maddie Sell and Madison Scheer used their length and savvy to take over at net on defense, especially.
Polk used a wisely placed tip to make it 24-19 in Game 2, and the Thunder won the next point off an error. In Game 3, Rockwood never trailed, although KIVA made that late push.
“I think it was just jitters; we are all super pumped to be here. That was our first match, and we had to settle ourselves after that first game,” Polk said. “It was stressful for all of us, but we knew in the end we would pull and play our game. We’d trust each other to do their jobs.”
“We all stayed positive, and we had confidence in each other. We were able to come back from those communication problems,” Scheer said. “We were nervous, but so excited.”
In an event designed to bring the best programs together and compete against each other from the very start of the schedule, Rockwood has the look of a team that can stand out in the vast Kansas City Convention Center.
“They’re an exceptionally nice and kind group to each other. It builds the trust, and we all know we are pulling the same direction, and our sisters have our backs,” Reid added. “Whatever is happening, let it go … we come back to our base, then push. That’s what makes us special. Hey, pounding the ball inside the 3-meter line, I love that, too. What’s special is when we win the ugliest of ugly plays, because we’ve repeated that rep a hundred times before.”