This is “Dots,” an occasional look at 10 things in club or high-school volleyball, past or present, that interest me and hopefully will interest you. Today, we present Dots, final four style!Enjoy these notes about players now in the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship from when they were younger:
• It was early March of 2017, and I was trolling the 15 Open courts at Crossroads when I came upon this tall, lanky 8th-grader playing six rotations for Houston Juniors. She was soooo good; reminded me of Alix Klineman with her long levers and the way she moved effortlessly for someone standing well above 6 feet.
“If you like her, you ought to check out this other 8th-grader playing 14 Open,” a college coach told me.
I had never covered 14s before, because I believe they are too young, generally, for the fishbowl that my coverage at PrepVolleyball.com created. But having seen this one amazing 8th-grader, I was intrigued. So I ventured over and watched Premier Nebraska playing in a match for a bit. The player in question was obvious. Tall and physically mature, she overwhelmed the other side with her power. It was an awesome display.
Fast forward 4+ years and I was being asked by the Gatorade POY folks to choose between the two for National Player of the Year. It was a brutal choice but made easier by the knowledge that one had already been named NPOY by other outlets. I chose the other one, because her story was more compelling: leading an unheralded school to the Texas large-class state title.
Those two players were Nebraskan Lindsay Krause and Texan Ally Batenhorst, who are now both star freshmen for Nebraska.
• Only one other time in my 20+ years covering volleyball nationally have I been summoned to watch a middle-schooler playing club ball on a 14s team. It was Junior Nationals in 2012, and a San Diego HS coach made me watch a 13-year-old playing for Coast. He hoped she would come to play for him during her high-school years.
I watched for a while. It was evident that she had abundant physical gifts and, when she learned to keep the ball in play, she would be unstoppable. That player, long and a little knock-kneed, was Lexi Sun, a senior OH for the Huskers. Sun did not end up playing for that coach, instead staying at tiny Santa Fe Christian. The choice did not hurt her, as she was named Gatorade National POY her senior year.
• Before she was Nebraska’s standout four-year starter at setter, Nicklin Hames put both The Webb School and K2 VBC on the map. Even when young, Hames was a dynamic player and natural leader for whom winning came easily. Hames won five consecutive state titles playing high school for her mother. Playing for her dad, K2 became a nationally-recognized brand during her club years. Hames was mesmerizing to watch on the court and fun loving off of it. One year, at the JVA Rock ‘N Rumble in Cleveland, someone dressed in the JVA’s mascot costume was bouncing around the convention center. It was none other than Hames herself. Nowadays, when I think of her, I don’t think about the winning so much as the young lady pulling off the leopard head for the big reveal.
• I was at Crossroads again, I think it was 2018, and found myself surrounded by a bunch of players from Iowa PowerPlex. I’m not sure how I came to be amongst them, but I remember clearly where it was at the Colorado Convention Center, in that area devoid of courts near the bathrooms center-left as you walk in. These are the kinds of “meet and greets” I used to have often with teams when I was in my 30s but less so now that the passage of time had made my visage seem less approachable.
Anyway, I was saying nice things about each of the players when one of their tribe bounded over with a million-dollar smile on her face. She was the youngest of the bunch but the one I remember most: Wisconsin MB Devyn Robinson. Her club teammate? Nebraska OH Madi Kubik. Playing on opposite sides of the bracket, both have a chance to make the NCAA championship match on Saturday.
• At the Rock ‘N Rumble in 2018, I was drawn to a 15s court to watch a Canadian team, Defensa 15 Purple. The reason? Defensa had a 6-7 freshman playing middle, and she moved pretty well. Turns out her father, Mike, a 7-footer, had won two championship rings playing for the LA Lakers. That 6-7 kid is now 6-9, making Anna Smrek the tallest Wisconsin Badger. It’s a good thing she got those two inches, however. Otherwise she might be only the third tallest on her team, behind 6-8 Dana Rettke and 6-7 Julia Wohlert.
• Serena Gray was playing 15s for San Gabriel Elite at the Las Vegas Classic. She and Marin Grote (Washington) were a fearsome duo in the middle, even for a team playing two years up in 17 Club at the February tournament. I remember wanting to interview Gray. She was so shocked! Gray played high school at little known Temple City and was not yet aware of the kind of prodigious talent she was. Gray was a great interview and went on to be one of the nation’s top middles coming out of high school. She started at Penn State but is in the national semifinals this week with Pittsburgh, after her kill in the regional final clinched a trip to Columbus for the Panthers.
• Mintonette, a Columbus, Ohio, club, was playing in an Open national championship match for the third straight year with a third different team. It did not win the first two matches and appeared destined to fail again after getting blasted in Game 1 of the 16 Open final in Minneapolis by mighty TAV. TAV led 22-16 in the second set when Chia Nwokolo, now a MB/RS on Pitt’s semifinal team, came up with a momentum-changing solo stuff for Mintonette. Nwokolo also had a key kill late in the third set as M.16 scored the final two points to edge the Dallas-area club, 15-13, for the national championship. Mintonette will be there in force to welcome Nwokolo home Thursday as she attempts to capture another national title. It would be the first for the Panthers just as it was the first for Mintonette.
• Have you ever seen Louisville freshman Elena Scott set? She was magic every time I watched her, which was often, because she had PNK in contention in every major club tournament from the time she was an 8th-grader playing up and she made Mercy Academy of Louisville one of the best high-school teams in the nation. When I learned that Louisville recruited Scott to play libero, I was downtrodden because I knew the kind of setter she was.
It turns out that Scott can do everything. Playing libero, Scott has appeared in all but four sets for the Cardinals this year and is among the nation’s leaders in digs. She also has 62 assists.
• Crossroads historically has been the first national qualifier of every season — it lost its qualifier status after a well-documented debacle last spring — and schedules the youngsters first. That means when I see a player for the very first time, it usually is at Crossroads. Such was the case for Tori Dilfer, who was playing for Vision at the time. In the interest of full disclosure, I am closer to the Dilfer family than most, as Trent Dilfer trained my QB son for some time. I loved eldest daughter, Maddie, for her grit and competitiveness. I LOVED youngest daughter, Delaney, for her bubbly personality. Tori was pure setter, something I told her mother, Cass, after watching her play for the first time. The ball came out of her hands so smoothly. It was a thing of beauty! Tori Dilfer started her career at TCU playing for one of my favorite people, Jill Kramer, and will end it playing for another of my favorite people, Dani Busboom-Kelly.
• TikTok fans will want to subscribe to the channel of Louisville DS Alexa Hendricks, one of two players, along with OH Anna DeBeer, from powerhouse high school Louisville Assumption. At @achendricks, the Cardinal junior spends a lot of time interviewing her teammates on everything from age of first kiss to the most popular sport on campus (hint: it’s baseball now, but could be volleyball if the Cardinals complete an undefeated season). Hendricks hasn’t posted anything for a couple of days, signaling that Columbus is exclusively a business trip for Louisville with a natty on the line.
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