By John Tawa
Incidentally, you'll notice that we gave teams nicknames. That makes it more fun, don't you think?
1. KJ Hawks (Washington)
No Toto, this squad isn't from Kansas and these rankings aren't Over the Rainbow. This team, from Kent, Washington, is a legit contender to win Nationals. They are dominated by seniors who have ruled the Apple State in high school over the past three years and have two stud juniors who rank among the top 20 prospects nationally in the Class of 2004. They have size in Christal Morrison and Brittany Cahoon and terrific setting in Courtney Thompson and Amy Dyck. "In the back of our minds, we think of how good we could be," said outside hitter Stevie Mussie, an athletic banger signed to Pacific. "We just want to be known like we were last year in the beginning – ‘not at all' – then come out and show everyone that even good volleyball comes from Washington." Too late, Stevie. We already know how good you should be. Let the pressure cooker commence!
2. Vision Quests (California)
Is it coincidence that this team has perhaps the two biggest Britney Spears fans in all of junior volleyball? We think not. Fan No. 1 Jessica Gysin – yes, that was she courtside next to Karch Kiraly at the LeBron James basketball game on ESPN2 wearing that cute Britney lid – must have recruited Megan Pura (she of the setmebby1mrtm e-mail address) to join the Quests, knowing that we, too, harbor a secret love for Britney. Great job, Jess. Here's your high ranking. Oh, here's another storyline: Bret Almazan-Cezar gets to find out if he really can coach with this group. If they win Nationals, he's a good coach. Anything less and message board talk that he just rolls the ball out will reach a fever pitch.
3. Sports Performance Issues (Illinois)
Like the nickname? That way, when this young team gets off to a slow start, we can properly write that it has Issues. (FYI, an "issue," in legal parlance, is a child, a descendant, an heir, so, please, no JTawa Inappropriate! references on the message boards related to this topic). Now, about the team, it's young, with three juniors -- Maggie Griffin setting, Katie Bruzdzinski hitting and Taylor Reineke blocking – but they're all among the top 50 juniors in the nation and you saw what City Beach did last year with a young 18s team. Plus, OH Meg Eckert is back, to be a leader, a calming influence and one of the best players on the floor in every match she plays.
4. Front Range Rovers (Colorado)
We wouldn't be surprised if this team was a little down this season, one year removed from its first-ever 18 Open title. Sure, the lithe setter Ashley Nu'u returns, as does the brute Cassy Salyer. But the fortunes of this team may rest on the shoulders of outside hitters Amber Nu'u and Lara Bossow. Nu'u says she's pain free after missing the high school season with a bulging disk in her back and, while we hope that's true, we know how balky backs can be. Bossow is making a step up to the big, big time and will need to adjust. Hey, Jim Miret's a great coach and if any coach can coax a team into a repeat, it's him.
5. Sky High Tops (Illinois)
We worry a bit about ranking this team so high with all those loony personalities. They'll either gel and excel or go nuts. Thank God for 18s holdover Jen Hynds. Not only does she add a huge presence in the middle, she'll be a calming influence on some high-strung athletes we affectionately dub (Steel yourself: a pun's coming) the Hynds Ward. The other twist to this team is a new coach from Bulgaria helping out. Rumor has it he was "secretary-general" of volleyball in his country. You know, how Mike Chandler is here.
By John Tawa
1. Team Z ZZZZZBest (Ohio)
The feeling here is that only injuries can hold this team back. Well, it has some coming out of the gate: MB/RS Erin Kanetzke is struggling with shoulder tendonitis while back row star Julie Walroth has a stress fracture in her back that will sideline her 4-8 weeks. We're not worried and you shouldn't be either.
2. Sky High Rollers (Illinois)
The Rollers finished T-3 last year and could fare even better this year. There are only two six footers on the roster, but the team has so much firepower it'll feel like everyone is attacking the ball way over the net. A fond shout out to Megan Steiner. We didn't get to write about her much during the high school season because of a back attack. We hope the only attacks we talk about in reference to her during club concern her work in the front row.
3. Milwaukee Sting Rays (Wisconsin)
Another club season, another chance to say Wack a million times. That's Jocelyn Wack, Student Sports All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year in the Cheese State (yes, we know that's not really it). Of course, this is much more than a one-girl gang. Lindsey Frank, Leanne Felsing, Katie Pfeiffer and a healthy (hopefully) Jamie Gabrielson make this team a lock for Open and, perhaps, a finals opponent for Team Z.
4. Club Long Beach Babies (California)
Let's get this straight. There's no California bias with this high ranking. I know this team didn't even qualify for Open last year and that setting remains a big question mark. But our rankings team consistently put the team of Barboza in the top five, so who am I to disagree. I do love Brett Quirarte's brisk development and secretly hope Loren Barry's transition to setter is smooth, because this girl's so athletic she could revolutionize the position.
5. Colorado Nuts
I absolutely love this team, but others aren't sold on the Nuts, cracking that they finished 17th last year. Shannon Krug sets it up and a bunch of bangers, led by Tara Hittle, knocks it down. Watch for massive improvement from 6-0 MB Linzy Kearney as the year goes along.
By Kevin Laseau
1. KIVA McEntire (Kentucky)
Hey, someone had to be No. 1, and we're wagering that it's KIVA, at least for now. Many considered it a huge upset when these guys went out in the quarterfinals at JOs last year. Returning cast members include Megan Argabright, she of the very live arm and quick step. She's joined once again by setter Julia Noe as well as outsides Whitney West and Brooke Haines. New to the scene is Whitney McCrory, a rock 'em - sock 'em athlete who jumped ship from Circle City to join Ron Kordes' outfit. They've got ball control, power, and competitive fire. They're No. 1…for now.
2. Vision of Loveliness (California)
Let's just say that last year's 11th place in 16 Open at Junior Olympics was a sign of good things to come, especially considering the injured status of Alex Fisher and that most of that team, including the younger Fisher, were freshman. Now, as seasoned, battle-tested sophomores, this group will try to finish what they started last year. Setter K.C. Walsh will surely help this very talented group be a factor this year when it matters.
3. City Beach Blanket Bingo (California)
I know, I know, they're defending champs from last year. Well, No. 3 isn't so bad, is it? The Beachers lost Mattie Pasion, an all-tourney selection last year who is now playing for Yahoo! 17s. But returning players include Caitlin Lawson, MVP a year ago, and Darcy Carroll, an all-tourney setter last summer. This dangerous 16s team retains its coach from last year, Steve Santonastaso, and has already taken part in the NCVA power league 18-under division, where it knocked off Delta Valley's 17s. Sounds like the beachhead is already being established. We'll see if they're still king of the sandbar in June.
4. Saddleback Valley of the Dinosaurs
Kelli Tennant. Let's start there. This Youth National Team participant is quickly appearing at the top of a lot of college coaches' "Ooh! Lookee" lists, and she'll be a huge factor in getting SVVC to the top of the heap at the Festival. Sources say the squad will be playing 18s in the SCVA league, which is the volleyball equivalent of "bring it on!"
5. Team "Meet Me in" St. Louis (Missouri)
Last year's runner-up is back and ready to rock and roll. Erik Kaseorg and Denise Silvestri will again direct this talented group, led by Erin Lindsey and Lindsay Allman, not to mention Erin Waller. With EMac back in the fold helping coach for TSL, can she get this team over the hump? They were close last year.
By Kevin Laseau
1. Vision Aries (California)
How many Mitty kids does it take to fill a Vision 15-1 team? Apparently nine, judging by the roster of Will Yuen's team. Last year's 14 Open runner-up squad did lose Chelsea Armer to the Vision 16-1s, but they'll have more than enough to get by.
2. Alamo Money (Texas)
Is it possible to make a team No. 2 with a qualifier? Well, since I'm the one writing, Yes. Alamo has big guns. BIG guns, with Jennifer Banse, Samantha Dabbs, and Jessica Glover, not to mention Mary Batis. This team won't be No. 2 for long if it can pass the nugget. If Alamo does that, it's straight up to the top spot. If not, it's open season for ball control-heavy squads such as KIVA and Munciana.
3. KIVA Daydream Believahs (Kentucky)
Ron Kordes' scrappy 14s team from last year comes back this year with more talent, including newcomer Jessica Diehl, an 8th grade middle blocker. Her arrival most likely enables developing hammer Kirsten Distler to move to the right side. This is exactly the kind of ball control outfit that could give bigger teams fits. Outside hitter Kristina Schoo gives the team it's soul, as she's no heel and will help pull the team up by its boot straps (Are those enough bad puns?).
4. Munciana Karenina (Indiana)
This was a good team to begin with, depending largely on the outside swinging of Kim Kuzma and middle hitting of Lauren Kaminsky. Rumor has it that an influx of kids from New Castle High School makes this team perhaps more dangerous, and that Coach Jim Craig might run a 6-2. Formerly known as the Blowfish, this group takes over the Banana Slug nickname, usually reserved for the 16s.
5. Tampa Bay City Rollers (Florida)
You want more pure physical talent? Is that what you want? OK, how about Jessica Glover and Janet Okogbaa, two wunderkind kids with immense up sides. They'll provide dynamic punch for Jeff Lamm's team, while Sloane "Yeah" Baby "Yeah" (her name really is Sloane Baby) is charged with the responsibility of distributing the ball to Glover, Okogbaa and the rest of the gang. Coach Lamm is also excited about libero Christine Tan, from whom he's expecting big things.
For complete lists, please visit www.prepvolleyball.com, the site is operated by John Tawa, the former volleyball editor for Student Sports; and Kevin Laseau, the former volleyball editor for vball.com.