Creighton University is the location for the unofficial start to the summer team camp season for Nebraska high school volleyball. The Bluejay Volleyball Team Camp is the first big stop for many teams following the conclusion of national club tournaments. It was our first stop of the summer as well, and here are some notes and observations from the first day of competition.
First, however, it’s important to stress that the actual results of matches at these summer camps are about as important as the price of tea in China. Pretty much every team is missing key players because of other summer commitments, family vacations, etc. Coaches also want to get fresh and long looks at players who may have no prior varsity experience but will be competing for varsity spots and as a result rarely have their best line-up on the floor. It’s also a great time for coaches to experiment with trying players at different positions, shuffling rotations, etc., especially this early in the summer. So, we know that the results aren’t really that important from a win-loss standpoint, which is why our coverage of team camps will focus more on things outside of wins and losses.
Teams competing: Ankeny (Iowa), Elkhorn, Millard North, Fremont, Papillion-LaVista South, Omaha Westside, Lincoln Southwest, Omaha Mercy, Papillion-LaVista, Bellevue West, Omaha Marian, Gretna, North Platte, Elkhorn South, Millard South, Lincoln Pius X, Malcolm, Lincoln North Star, Plattsmouth, Lincoln East.
Format: Teams are split into five pools of four and are shuffled into different pools during competition on Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Teams are then reseeded into new pools for Friday afternoon based on their record during the first three sessions.
Elkhorn had one of the largest group of players at camp today with 15 total. It makes sense as first-year coach Abby DaSilva is the third coach in three years for the Antlers and her team lost its top four attackers, three blockers and both its setters. Fortunately DaSilva has Ball State recruit Grace Nelson and Omaha recruit Claire Mountjoy in the back row to give them one of the best defensive duos in the state and both were passing brilliantly today.
If you want a dark horse team that is a legit title contender come November in Class A, Millard North would be a good choice. While the team’s second-leading attacker from last year – Kate Bilyeu – is now at Omaha Marian, the Mustangs are going to be a team to watch. Elise Baumann, a senior OH, is one of the most underrated players in the state and the Mustangs have a plethora of defensive standouts and 6-foot-1 sophomore Emma Grunkemeyer will establish herself as one of the most dominant presences at the net in Class A this year. The sky is the limit for Grunkemeyer, but if she can just be a consistent force as a sophomore, Millard North will be tough – and it showed on Thursday. Gunkemeyer already has options among Division I schools in major conferences.
Despite the loss of Gatorade Player of the Year Raegan LeGrand and All-State setter Taylor Crandall, Papillion-LaVista South should be right in the hunt for a Class A title again this year. There are a couple new faces for the Titans this year as middle Morgen Bianchi and setter Payton Moore both come over from Papillion-LaVista to begin their junior years. Bianchi played in three sets as a freshman on the 2014 Monarch team that was the Class A runner-up and spent last fall running cross country. Bianchi’s presence in the middle looks like the Titans will be able to use Peyton Schendt on the outside with North Dakota recruit Taliyah Flores while Moore and sophomore setter Mara LeGrand give the Titans a lot of flexibility at that position.
It’s probably just me, but it seems like Omaha Westside junior Clara Lamb (listed at 6-3 last year) has gotten even taller. That’s what it felt like at least and Lamb was playing RS in the matches I got to watch of Westside. She averaged more than one ace solo block a year ago and will give opposing outsides fits if she can stay motivated and healthy. She’s getting a lot of major recruiting interest but has only been able to log 45 varsity sets. With the graduation of Sam Duncan, Westside has to have Lamb on the court all year long to be successful.
I didn’t get to see much of Lincoln Southwest, but I do know that Rachel Walker is ready to be an all-state caliber player for the Silverhawks. That much is obvious.
Papillion-LaVista was at its usual high level on Thursday for this point in the season and has to be considered the early favorite to end Omaha Marian’s streak of three straight Class A titles.
By no means should anyone get ready to throw dirt on Omaha Marian’s run of dominance in Class A as the Crusaders don’t rebuild, they reload. It will be fun watching Marian through the summer to see how the Crusaders evolve. Emily Bressman and Hailey Zuroske both return as OH and looked real good and it will be interesting to see how and where Bilyeu fits into the plan. The other thing to follow this summer for Marian is who fills the giant shoes left by libero Brittany Witt and DS Andie Hanus. Witt was a four-year starter and Hanus played at an all-state level for three years. Their dominance left no room for anyone else to see the court, so whoever wins those jobs for Marian will have zero varsity experience, but rest assured they will be talented. If today was any indication, coach Amy McLeay is going to take a long look at several people in the back row. But, to me, the biggest thing to watch will be leadership evolution for Marian. Whose team is it? In 2013 Sydney O’Shaughnessy was the court general and unquestioned leader. In 2014, Kelsey O’Connell made a fast recovery from a major knee injury to help push the team over the top and in many ways was the heart-and-soul of the team. In 2015 you had a core of seniors led by Witt, Hanus, Elizabeth Loschen, Sophia Terwilleger, etc., that held each other accountable and drove each other. Who takes the baton this year?
I tweeted about it, but it just seemed odd today watching Gretna without seeing Halie McArdle nor Amanda Young. Don’t feel too sorry for coach Mike Brandon, though, because the Dragons looked good (they took a set from Marian, which, I know, is meaningless, but…….) and they still have Cameron Scott running the show and I fully expect UTEP recruit Mallory Yost to have a huge year in the middle.
Millard South was probably the youngest team in the state last year, rolling with eight freshmen on its varsity roster. The Patriots will likely be very young again this year with it showing Thursday as Millard South had moments of brilliance and moments of, well, non-brilliance. Nebraska-Kearney recruit Madi Stearns had 30-or-more kills in a match twice last year and nearly took off the heads of opposing back row players twice Thursday, but a player that grows on me more and more each time I watch them is sophomore setter Jaisee Stinson. You can make a strong case that Stinson is one of the best all-around athletes playing volleyball in Class A. As a freshman last year she started every match for the Patriots and finished with 137 kills, 219 digs and 357 assists and had a triple-double against Bellevue East with 10 kills, 16 assists and 13 digs. She was then a vital piece of Millard South’s basketball team which reached the Class A semifinals and in the spring she finished third at the Class A state track meet in the 300 hurdles. She has a ways to go as a pure setter, but she’s an incredibly athletic play maker who will be a difference maker.
Jaela Zimmerman looked good in her future home and the junior Bluejay recruit and her Malcolm teammates ended the day with a nice win over Millard South. The Clippers have had a couple good years in a row, posting great records but being unable to do much in the postseason. With Zimmerman and Hayley Densberger Malcolm will likely post another impressive record this year with few big tests on its schedule, but there needs to be quite a bit of improvement around Zimmerman and Densberger for the Clippers to make big strides in the postseason.
I didn’t get enough time to really watch enough of Fremont, Bellevue West, Omaha Mercy, Elkhorn South, North Platte, Lincoln East, Plattsmouth, Lincoln North Star or Lincoln Pius to speak somewhat intelligently on those teams and players. So, I will give those teams a lot of love and attention at the next camp I see them at.
The Creighton Team Camp ends tomorrow with a pool play session starting at 8:50 a.m. and the “championship” sessions start at roughly 2 p.m. at Kiewit Fitness Center on the Creighton campus.
Tomorrow we will be at the Wayne State Team Camp.