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NORTHERN LIGHTS 2.0

By Vernon Birmingham, 06/20/17, 1:00PM CDT

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They say it's tough to beat an opponent three times in a season. Could the same be said for winning the same tournament two years in a row?

The city of Minneapolis should give the Highlands Performance 15 Rox team keys to the convention center after accomplishing this task and winning the 2017 version of the Northern Lights American Division in Minneapolis, Minnesota the weekend of April 21st.
 
“We’ve played well in every qualifier and just kept coming up a little short”, said Head Coach Karl Mendenhall. Having finished 5th at Show Me earlier this month and 3rd last month at Nike Mideast, the team knows how close they have been to earning a bid.
 
“We really thought we had a good chance of getting a trickle down out of either our Regionals (Heart of America) finish or our Power League finish but it became apparent by our last tournament that that was pretty unlikely, stated Mendenhall.  Although we all felt we were a much stronger team this year, somehow we found ourselves in the same situation of being down to our last out. For a season that starts with open gyms in July and goes until late April to all come down to one weekend, the pressure does get pretty immense”.
 
When asked if the girls and coaches, which included assistant Grace Mize put added pressure on themselves heading into the final qualifier they had this to say. “We didn't really need to. I think there was already enough with it being our last chance. We did add some extra practices though and we found that we had practice for the last 4 days straight prior to the qualifier”.  Though this was the last chance there was a positive outlook on things. Similar location, similar circumstances; so why not! 
 
Knowing this was the same qualifier they earned their berth last year this gave the team an added boost of confidence. Coach Karl shared, “Having won this same qualifier last year after being in the same situation just provided a lot of confidence to us.  We were also given some additional motivation being seeded 24th by the tournament directors coming in. The team of course took this personally especially after winning the tournament last year and being seeded 1st in Indianapolis a few weeks earlier.”
 
With the added motivation, the Rox took care of business running through the first two days of competition. Like the previous two tournaments getting to Sunday’s Gold Bracket was the first step to clinching a berth. 
 
15 Rox would face a very strong team right off the bat Sunday morning in Vitale 15-1 from Minneapolis. After dropping the first set 25-18 it was time for a wakeup call or their dream of returning to Nationals would end quickly. “It was one of those matches where we weren't quite awake yet, had some unfortunate plays and calls, and were playing against a strong squad. The potential for a loss was big, especially after dropping the first set. But the girls came back strong and managed to win the second set 25-20”, said Mendenhall.  Highlands has been a great 3rd set team all year long and the trend continued and they easily took the 3rd set, and match, 15-5.   
 
Getting past the morning match proved to be a big deal as it gave the team an extra hour break to wake up, something the opponent surely didn’t care much for.  Highlands came out and blew away Ziva from Texas in straight sets with 25-12 and 25-16 scores and advance to the final four.
 
The semi-final match proved to be a huge test and an interesting match-up. Out of the 90 teams in the tournament in the division, Southwest Minnesota Volleyball Club was the only other 15s team staying at the same hotel as Highlands. After a convincing 25-14 win in the first set, Rox would lose a close game 28-26 in the second.  “They had a giant 6' 3" left handed opposite that really was there 'go to' girl. She was incredible. We didn't stop her all of the time but we dug her up just enough to limit the damage and that allowed us to score on the backside of their rotation and pull out a 15-10 win in the 3rd set”, reflected Coach Karl.
 
This set up a match that Highlands had been looking at for most of the tournament. After being given the 24th seed they were able to take the 2nd seed from Northern Lights on Day 2 and had been looking at that number 1 seed, TAV Molten, for a while. “Last year at this time, we watched this same team lose in the semi-finals in a very close 3 set match prior to the final we played in so we recognized some of the players”, said Mendenhall. This TAV team finished 3rd in Lone Star this year which shows their ability to play at a high level. 
 
Set 1 was a back forth battle with neither team taking any big leads during the duration of the set. Highlands would hold the last lead to squeak out a 25-23 win. Set 2 was much of the same scenario except Rox found themselves down facing game point at 24-23. “Our passing had been strong all tournament and it didn't let us down here either”, added Mendenhall. The Highlands’ pass on game point allowed them to set their middle, Alli Brinton, and she crushed the ball between two blockers and to the 6-1 seam. TAV answered with a kill of their own and once again Highlands faced game point.  
 
Serve Receive answered again with a perfect pass and the set went to the middle. This time it was Alexis Utz. Before her swing could fall a whistle was blown on the blockers of TAV trying to get into place to block Utz for a net violation. This meant Highlands would live on for another point. Ryleigh McBurney promptly entered and served an ace to get the score to 27-26, match point Highlands. 
 
After serving again, Ryleigh dug the outside hitter for TAV and Meghan Schneider set outside hitter Meghan McElwee on what felt surely to be the game winning kill. Not so Fast! TAV's blockers rose in time to block the ball back over the net and beyond the hit coverage. Kelcey Hund, Highlands Defensive Specialist, managed to reach back and chicken wing the blocked ball with a fist to keep it in the air. It was a great play but also a very fortuitous placement as the ball sailed right into the path of McElwee again. Meghan jumped up and placed a tip right over the hands of the blockers. A few outreached desperation touches later the ball fell harmless off the net to the floor on the side of TAV and the celebration began. Repeat! Next year, we can be certain they want to earn their berth before Northern Lights. If not, they will have no problem traveling up I-35 and going for a 3-peat. Congratulations!
 
The 15 Rox will play in the USAV Junior Nationals in late June in Minneapolis, Minnesota.