Meet me in the middle? SPVB 18 Red defeats Illini Elite 18 Black for AAU title

Illini Elite 18 Black survived nearly a half-dozen three-set matches to reach the championship match of the 18 Club division in Orlando, but ultimately fell to SPVB 18 Red.

Orlando, Florida – Sports Performance 18 Red and Illini Elite 18 Black traveled a combined 2,300 miles to play in the championship of the 18 Club division at the 48th AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships at the Orange County Convention Center.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to settle things somewhere in the middle? Say, Dwight, Illinois?

Maybe the accommodations are simply better in Orlando. After all, there’s no Disney World in Dwight.

But the ladies from Aurora felt right at home Tuesday.

SPVB 18 Red rode the hot hitting of Naperville Central’s 5-foot-9 outside hitter Giorgia Cavalleri and a long service runs by Joliet Catholic’s 5-10 middle hitter Emily Surin to defeat their neighbors from central Illinois, 25-16, 25-20, and claim the 18 Club division title.

“This team didn’t really get out a lot,” said SPVB 18 Red coach Steve Justice. “We didn’t see a lot of people. We did a lot of (in-house) evaluations, and we only played in two tournaments (because of COVID-19). We knew we could surprise some people with how good we were.”

Nevertheless, the Aurora crew (11-1) was treading on thin ace following a 25-23, 17-25, 15-13 loss to Matchbox 18 Adidas (Aberdeen, South Dakota) in pool play on day two. Another loss would likely knock them out of gold medal contention.

But that would be SPVB 18 Red’s only setback of the tournament, although they had to survive a harrowing 25-12, 25-27, 15-11 win over Premier Onitsuka (Maumee, Ohio) in the semifinals.

“We turned it on after that (Matchbox loss),” Justice said. “We only lost one set after that.”

Bloomington-based Illini Elite 18 Black suffered a loss earlier in the tournament, falling to H2 STL 18 Crush (St. Louis, Missouri), 25-20, 14-25, 15-10, on day three. But Illini Elite bounced back four times after losing the first set during their run to the championship, including a 14-25, 25-22, 17-15 semifinal victory against CEV Sapphire 18-1 (Massillon, Ohio).

However, there would be no comeback for the central Illinois girls in the finals.

Cavalleri owned the first set, handing SPVB 18 Red a 10-7 lead from which Illini Elite never recovered. Surin’s long service run extended a 12-9 lead to 19-9 before Illini Elite was able to stop the bleeding.

Illini Elite grabbed an early 7-5 lead in the second set, but another long service run by SPVB 18 Red, this time reaching 9 points, ended whatever drama remained.

Joining Cavalleri and Surin on the medal stand were 5-4 setter Abbey Witzel (Oswego East), 5-9 junior outside hitter Alexis Mines (Joliet Catholic), 5-10 junior setter Darby Harris (Wheaton Warrenville South), and 6-1 middle hitter Isabella Mosquera (St. Charles East).

Also, 5-3 libero Katlyn Sipes (St. Francis), 5-11 outside hitter Kerrigan Candra (Plainfield Central), 5-6 defensive specialist Nancy Caroselli (Plainfield North) and 5-5 sophomore defensive specialist Elizabeth Murray (Glenbard West).    

Harris was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

Illini Elite 18 Black featured setter Sam Hovey (Deer Creek-Mackinaw), middle hitter Caroline Carr (Bloomington), outside hitter Kaitlin Dean (Olympia), and outside hitter Summer Sheley (Tri-Valley), defensive specialist Katy Morrison (Argenta-Oreana).

Also, middle hitter Talia Meyer (Tremont), middle hitter Elise Dawson (Lincoln) and setter Riley Owens (Tri-Valley). All nine members of Illini Elite 18 Black have graduated high school. Seven have committed to colleges including Indiana Wesleyan (Carr) and Winona State (Meyer).  

SPVB 16 C-Fed (13-1) also advanced to the championship match, beating Vital 16 Gold (Eden Prairie, Minnesota), 25-18, 15-25, 15-10, TK 16 Soar (Roswell, Georgia), 25-21, 25-22, and SWMNVB 16-1 (Minneota, Minnesota), 27-25, 25-19, to reach the 16 Club finals against Smash 16s (Newton, Massachusetts). 

But after rallying from down 13-10 in the second set to take a 21-17 lead behind kills by 5-8 setter/middle hitter Kinsey Bakhaus (Plainfield Central) and 5-11 opposite Gabija Staniskis (Benet Academy), and a pair of ace by 5-7 opposite Cailey Smiley (Oswego East), C-Fed was unable to force a third set, falling 25-19, 25-23. 

“The other team (Smash) served really well,” said SPVB 16 C-Fed coach Matt Slechta. “They served aggressively the whole time. We played well. We were able to dig a lot of balls. But at the end (of the second set), they were a little faster than we were.”

Rounding out the roster for the silver medalists were 5-3 libero Brenda Reynaga (Metea Valley), 5-9 outside hitter Bryanna Jones (Neuqua Valley), 5-3 defensive specialist Ingrid Guillen (East Aurora), 5-11 setter/middle hitter Keelyn Muell (Yorkville High), 5-10 outside hitter Lauren Jansen (Plainfield North) and 5-6 outside hitter/opposite Vanessa Mleczko (Yorkville High).  

“To get how far we did without having middles is a pretty big accomplishment,” Slechta said. “We had our setters play middle. By day three and four, we started facing bigger middles and teams started running their middles faster.

“But our quarterfinal and semifinals matches were the best matches we played all week,” he added. “We were a little undersized for what we were able to accomplish. It was fun.”

In the 18 Classic division, Balance 18 White (Cary, Illinois) advanced to the championship match by defeating previously unbeaten EVC 18 National (Plainfield), 25-17, 25-22, in the quarterfinals, and fighting off two sets points in the second set to defeat another unbeaten team, SPVB 18 Blue (11-1), 31-29, 26-24, in the semifinals.

But Balance (12-1) couldn’t duplicate its semifinal magic in the championship match against Kairos Elite 18 Beta (Sioux Falls, South Dakota), which entered the match at 11-1 after losing its third match of day one.

After bouncing back from a 25-23 loss in the first set, Balance evened the match by winning the second, 25-18. But Kairos jumped out to a 9-3 lead in the third set, and although Balance closed within 11-9 and fought off one match point on a perfect executed slide by 5-11 junior middle blocker Mya Bajromovic (Cary-Grove), the Sioux Falls girls held on for a 25-23, 18-25, 15-11 victory.

Balance featured 5-7 junior libero Hannah Benes (Antioch) 5-7 outside hitter/defensive specialist Emily Claussen (McHenry), 5-6 libero/defensive specialist Grace Erych (Cary-Grove), and 5-10 junior setter/rightside hitter Lauren Klutke (Crystal Lake Central).

And, 5-7 outside hitter Olivia Jost (Prairie Ridge), 5-11 setter/rightside hitter Lauren Passaglia (Carey-Grove), 6-0 junior middle blocker/outside hitter Jaclyn Poirier (Jacobs), 5-11 middle blocker Grace Regnier (Antioch), and 5-10 junior outside hitter Haylee Yelle (Prairie Ridge).

Other 18 Classic top finishers included EVC National (11-1, fifth place), SPVB 18 Navy (9-2) and Top Flight 18 Theta (9-2), who tied for ninth, Springfield Shock 18 Under Armour (9-4, 11th place), and Eastland Cougars (5-6) and Southern Illinois Wave 18s Black (10-2), who tied for 14th place.  

Elsewhere, Springfield Shock 17 Under Armour (12-1) defeated Net Force 17 Black (Waukegan), 28-26, 25-19, and Country Fire 17 (Liberty, Texas), 25-17, 25-23, to advance to the 17 Classic division championship match against Rocket City Volleyball Club 171 (Huntsville, Alabama).

However, RCVC broke a 21-21 tie in the second set to hand coach Bruce Wible’s unbeaten crew a heartbreaking 25-19, 25-23 loss.

Shock 17 Under Armour team members are Kenna Bixby (New Berlin), Summer Brandis (Taylorville), Chloe Byrd (Springfield), Hannah Clayton (Tri-Valley), Jenna Dorman (Rochester), Abigail Heberling (Taylorville), Laura Kaiser (Chatham Glenwood), Julianna Orr (Edinburg), Ella Rogers (New Berlin) and Hannah Tinder (Rochester).

In other divisions, Club 1 16 Skronkstrong (8-4, fifth place) advanced to the quarterfinals of the 16 Aspire division before losing to TX Image 16 Asics Black (Grand Prairie, Texas), 25-22, 25-18, while SPVB 16 Red (9-1, ninth place) lost in a championship feed-in match to eventual champion Texstar 16 (Weimar, Texas), 25-16, 23-25, 15-9.

Springfield Shock 16 Under Armour (10-1, fifth place) advanced to the quarterfinals of the 16 Classic division before losing to FaROut 16 Red (Grand Rapid, Michigan), 25-22, 25-22, while SPVB 16 Blue (8-1, ninth place) lost 22-25, 25-23, 15-12 to SA Elite 161 Navy (Texas) in the round of 16.

In the quarterfinals of the 17 Classic division, SPVB 17 Marshall (9-1) lost to Country Fire, 25-20, 25-22, and Ultimate Asics G17 Blue (10-2) fell to ETA1 17 Black (Lindale, Texas), 25-10, 20-25, 15-11, to join Net Force 17 Black (10-1) in fifth place.

Other top finishers in the 18 Club division included Champaign-based Prime Time 18 Blue (9-2), which finished 13th by defeating ESVBC Elite Ninjas 18U (7-4) out of East Peoria, who placed 14th, in the consolation bracket.
Illinois’ only representative in the 16 Open division, Illini Elite 16 Cardinal, went 8-4 and finished in 34th place.