OMAHA – Over the two days of play at the UNO competitive team camp this weekend, there were a handful of surprises and some results that came as no surprise at all.
Two-time defending Class A champion Omaha Marian was the most consistently impressive team along with one of its top challengers for the 2015 Class A title, North Platte.
Unfortunately, the two teams never played each other. The format at the UNO team camp has the 32 teams split up into two pools of 16 teams with each team playing nine matches over the course of Friday and Saturday morning. Once those matches are completed, teams are re-pooled to pit teams from Pool A against Pool B based on their standings for three more matches.
With that format, there is no “true” champion or championship match. However, the top four teams from Pool A and Pool B, in essence, are clumped into a top-tier pool to bring the top performing teams together in Saturday afternoon’s play.
In Pool A, Elkhorn South, Omaha Marian, Ord and Millard West finished in the top four while in Pool B, Grand Island Northwest, Grundy Center (Iowa), North Platte and Ankeny Centennial (Iowa) were the top four teams. With each of those teams playing three matches within that pool, here is how the teams did in their final six sets:
Omaha Marian & North Platte – 4-2
Ord, Millard West, Grundy Center & Ankeny Centennial – 3-3
Elkhorn South & Grand Island Northwest – 2-4
It’s also important to point out that during competition, the matches were played for 35 minutes, regardless how many complete sets were played. In many cases, time expired before the second set was complete, so the team, which had the lead when time expired, was named the winner of the set. If teams were able to start a third set during the allowed time, results of the third set did not count toward a team’s record.
Here are various notes and thoughts following the two full days of competition:
Teams that standout early in the season – especially during the summer – are generally teams that return a lot of experience – most importantly a setter and back row players and for most of the teams which finished high in the pools, that’s the case.
Omaha Marian pretty much returns its entire team, so it surprises nobody that they have a well-established flow and chemistry about them already. The scary thing for other teams in Nebraska is that Marian had the success it did without the state’s best libero in Brittany Witt, All-Nebraska RS Elizabeth Loschen and senior setter Maren McGuire. That just speaks to the depth and elite talent Marian has.
Speaking of depth and talent for Omaha Marian, the absence of the three starters from last year’s team provided an opportunity for some new faces. Most notable was freshman Hailey Zuroske, who had moments when she looked very good. However, given the quantity and quality of the seniors Omaha Marian has this season, it’s hard to envision a freshman seeing much court time of substance. That’s definitely a name to file away, though, as being a big part of future teams.
While Marian’s roster wasn’t complete at UNO, neither was North Platte’s. All-Nebraska OH Allison Kuenle had tweaked her ankle earlier in the week and didn’t like the way it felt in the initial match at UNO, so she spent the weekend resting and icing her ankle.
This was our first look at Nebraska-Kearney recruit Josie Cox playing with North Platte and the 6-foot-2 senior middle looked good, especially with her blocking. Cox transferred to North Platte from Maxwell to join a team that already features Kuenle, Colorado State recruit and fellow middle Olivia Nicholson, setter Alex Neff and libero Hayley Schanou.
If you follow us on Twitter, then you know Ord was the talk of the camp. Ord has had some great teams in recent years, but the Chanticleers have been victims before of the NSAA’s most ludicrous flaws with volleyball. While the NSAA seeds Class A district tournaments and has put in place a sub-state round for Class B, it still uses the ancient system of simple geography in Class C and D. The main issue – especially in Class C-1 – is that a disproportionate number of schools in the C-1 classification are within a roughly 60-mile radius of Grand Island. This leads to traditional powers such as Kearney Catholic, Ogallala, Grand Island Central Catholic, Minden, Columbus Scotus, etc., all being clumped into the same one or two districts. This creates two monster districts in Class C-1 and four watered-down districts. As a result, traditionally, the Class C-1 field at the state tournament lack quality depth and sees multiple top teams at home.
During the camp, Ord swept both Millard West and Grand Island Northwest and displayed tremendous defense, an array of quality attackers and the always important, yet unable to quantitate, vibe that all great teams have.
I’ve always viewed Ord setter Morgan Alexander as an exceptional player and one of the best setters in the Class of 2016. After two full days of getting to watch her play, I realize that she is even better than I had been giving her credit for. I would now call her – at this point – the best senior setter in the state and safely put her among the top five setters in the state regardless of class. She reminds me a lot of a slightly shorter version of former Omaha Marian standout Sydney O’Shaughnessy.
In an earlier story from the UNO team camp I had mentioned how I thought Millard West senior Sydney Stockfleth had developed into one of the best all-around players in Class A. Early on Saturday she went down with what initially looked like a severe injury for the Wildcats, but initial reports indicate she avoided a serious knee issue, which is tremendous news. After leaving the facility, Stockfleth was able to return toward the end of the day on crutches and a large brace.
While Omaha Marian may have the best individual defenders in the state, Millard West might just have the most overall depth of quality back row players. The most experience returning back row player for the Wildcats is junior Jordan Daniels, who – I’ve been told – has at least one Division I offer. Junior Callahan Netsch was very solid at UNO and saw a fair amount of varsity time last year and freshman Jaiden Centeno looked sharp as well and was definitely not over matched.
Another freshman for Millard West, outside hitter Jordan McCormick, had her moments on Friday where she looked good and then got more of an opportunity on Saturday when Stockfleth went down. It’s very rare for a freshman at a good Class A program to make an impact in the front row, so McCormick’s situation may closely mirror Zuroske at Marian in that meaningful varsity time may not come this fall, but she has clearly established herself as one of the top freshmen in the state.
Both senior Kelsey Green and junior Sarah Swanson logged rotation time as outsides for Elkhorn South at UNO, which is significant since both have traditionally been just middles. Offensive firepower won’t be an issue for the Storm, obviously, but the big key is going to be replacing all-state setter Ashley Knight – who is off to Villanova.
I’m not sure you can really judge the success of Elkhorn South based on how it does during these summer team camps, as clearly the team is going to use this time to play with rotations and line-ups to see what works and what doesn’t. Coach Brianna Ritter is being smart in using the summer as a petri dish. Clearly the Storm could stick with its basic rotations of the past and be good enough to challenge for the Class B title, but by creating flexibility in her rotations Ritter can ensure that she is getting the maximum usage out of all her talent while creating a team that difficult to prepare for and even harder to defend.
Grand Island Northwest went a perfect 18-0 in its nine matches of the initial pool play and was the most consistently impressive team through the first 75% of camp. A red-hot Ord team swept Grand Island Northwest to start the top-tier pool play, but the Vikings bounced back to get splits with both Elkhorn South and Omaha Marian.
Northwest looked like a typical Diane Rouzee powerhouse – relentless and well-positioned defense, a strong block at the net, sound setting and a balanced hitting attack. With several key pieces returning from last year’s 26-7 team, you just got the vibe at UNO that this has the potential to be another 30-plus win team for GINW that finds itself playing on the final Saturday of the season in Lincoln.
Grand Island finished fifth in Pool A, just missing out on the top-tier finish and the Islanders look like they will be a top-10 team in Class A. McKenzie Puckett turned some heads with her play.
Millard North (sixth in pool A) and Lincoln North Star (seventh in pool B) also showed some signs that they could wind up playing the final weekend of the season in Lincoln.
Millard North had nine seniors on its roster a year ago when it went 14-23, so the Mustangs did well with a young and inexperienced crew. They may not start out as one of the eight best teams in Class A, but certainly showed signs that they could end up there.
North Star has a new coach in Jessy Denker and has some good returning talent, but the key for the Navigators will be replacing the things you can’t truly measure with the graduation of middle Katie Hitz and setter Kailee Brown.
While Ord was clearly the best Class C-1 school at UNO, Columbus Scotus (seventh in pool A), Omaha Concordia (eighth in pool B) and Grand Island Central Catholic (10th in pool B) each competed well against the bigger schools and were impressive.
Elkhorn had a killer schedule the way the pools shaped up, but still wound up finishing fifth in pool B and it appeared that the tough grind and the loss of Claire Mountjoy to an injury early on Friday took its toll on the team on Saturday afternoon. For a pure win-loss standpoint, the Antlers may not have had the success as other Class B contenders Elkhorn South and Grand Island Northwest, but Elkhorn showed over the weekend that it will be right in the thick of things come postseason.