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Tawa’s HS Dots: A Cornerstone moment and hugs at High Sierra, elsewhere

This is “Dots,”’s weekly look at 10 things in high school volleyball, past or present, that interest me and hopefully will interest you. Look for Dots every Tuesday until the last high school state championship in November:

• Cornerstone Christian of San Antonio is heating up. The Warriors are now 18-1 and winners of nine in a row after going 6-0 over the weekend to win the Nike Tournament of Champions Southeast in Florida. Cornerstone Christian dominated previously unbeaten Sunshine State foe Carrollwood Day in the championship match.

A loss in last year’s championship match was extra incentive for Cornerstone Christian this year

Warrior standouts included OH Megan Fitch, who was named MVP after contributing 68 kills, 39 digs and seven aces over 13 sets. RS Grace Carroll (40 kills; nine blocks) and Kaia Thiele (80 assists; 31 digs) also made the All-Tournament team.

Coach Mike Carter said that his team played its best match in the quarterfinals versus Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas. Both Berkeley Prep of Tampa and Winter Park provided stiff competition for Cornerstone Christian.

• Last year, Cornerstone Christian finished 55-2, playing an independent schedule that had the Warriors traveling out of state several times. One of the two losses came at the Nike ToC Southeast, in the championship match to surprising Westminster Christian of Miami. Westminster went on to win 27 straight in the regular season before being dumped by Clearwater Central Catholic in the Florida 3A championship match.

Westminster Christian, also known as the “Warriors,” didn’t fare quite as well at the ToC this year. Despite returning several of its top players, including Gigi Artiles, one of the nation’s top sophomores, the Miami school, famously home to baseball Hall of Famer Alex Rodriguez, lost to Viera (and Colorado transplant Izzyy Starck)  in pool play, then fell twice more, to Calvary Christian of Clearwater and Tampa Plant, in bracket play.

• The Tournament of Champions is actually three tournaments in one. Cornerstone Christian won the National division. The Premier Division went to Ransom-Everglades (my alma mater!) of Miami. Westminster Academy prevailed in the Elite Division.

• In the days leading up to the ToC, the Washington Post ran a feature on Mehdi El Alaoui, the veteran coach of Virginia private school power Bishop O’Connell, the two-time reigning Washington Athletic Conference champions. The Moroccan native said that he blended international styles with the American brand of the sport to create a unique approach that has served the Knights well.

Indeed, after graduating just one starter, Bishop O’Connell came into the season with perhaps the most talented roster in its history, one with seven players at least 6 feet tall. The team was so highly regarded that it was ranked No. 2 in the Post’s pre-season rankings, behind always-tough Flint Hill.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over more than two decades covering the sport, it’s that traditional volleyball hotbeds tend to fare better against powerhouse teams from less-developed volleyball areas. That proved to be the case for Bishop O’Connell at the ToC. The Knights, with no warm up matches locally to shake off the rust before making the trip south, went 0-3 on Day 1 in the Premier Division that Ransom won, then went 1-2 in bracket play, including a 15-13 Game 3 loss to same-state Virginia Academy. Senior setter Erin Debiec, a Colorado State commit, had a nice tournament for the Knights.

Bishop O’Connell gets its local slate underway on Friday versus Archbishop Spalding

• In Reno, the High Sierra Tournament title went to Colorado’s Valor Christian. The Eagles are off to a 9-0 start to the season and are on a 38-match unbeaten streak after a 29-0 year on the way to a 5A state title in 2022.

Valor, which graduated seven off of last year’s team, has a new look this year, other than the trio of setter Chloe Elarton, hitter Delany Russell and middle Grace Langer, who were all instrumental of the team’s success in Reno.

“The team this year is obviously a new group, but the culture is remaining consistent,” said head coach Jayne McHugh. “They flat out love being with one another! The five seniors are amazing and provide such great consistency!”

One other constant is McHugh herself. The former head coach at the University of Pacific in Stockton took the job at Valor in 2019, after a stint coaching St. Mary’s High School of Stockton. So it must have been emotional for McHugh to face off against and defeat St. Mary’s in the championship match.

“The best part was hugging young ladies that I taught in middle school!” she exclaimed.

• The 24-team Hawaii Labor Day Classic, hosted by Kamehameha Hawaii, featured teams from Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, in addition to schools from the Islands.

Iolani, the defending Hawaii 4A champion was the top seed, and played like it through two pools and one match. But the Raiders lost in the semifinals, to Otay Ranch out of San Diego County, and the Mustangs won once more, over state-ranked California side Campbell Hall, to take the title.

Otay Ranch had the magic in Hawaii this past weekend

Otay Ranch (15-2) was undefeated heading to Hawaii but employed the “survive and advance” approach to pool play, going 2-1 on both Friday and Saturday to make the championship bracket. The Mustangs lost to the host school, a state semifinalist last year; on Day 1; then fell to the state champs on Day 2. After outlasting a good Roosevelt team from California’s Southern Section in three to start bracket play, and a good Kalaheo team, Otay Ranch found itself matched up with Iolani once more.

“I’m pretty sure they were very confident since they had already beaten us before,” said coach Michael Pandaan. 

The match, just like the two before it, went to three sets.

Said Pandaan: “I told the girls, ‘We have nothing to lose if we lose to this team,  but if we win you will have beaten the state champions and one of the best teams in Hawaii.’”

Otay Ranch jumped to a big lead in the third and Iolani could not recover.

Campbell Hall defeated Kamehameha Hawaii in the other semifinal, creating an all-Golden State battle for the title.

Playing great defense, led by liberos Karina Garcia and Olivia Lorenzana, who were amazing over three days; Otay Ranch won Game 1. Campbell Hall was relentless and took the second set handily, 25-19.

In the third set, Pandaan instructed his setters to push the ball fast to the pins and let their middles decide who they had to block against.

“My three pin hitters are all very fast,” Pandaan said. “We establish that and went on a serving run and won the set 15-9.”

Pandaan said that outsides Ximena Cordero and Dayiah McFadden and RS Andrea Torres all had highlight moments in the win.

Otay Ranch plays state-ranked Westview of San Diego on Thursday, with designs on breaking into the state rankings.

Kickapoo is undefeated and preparing for tomorrow’s showdown with Nixa

• Last year, Kickapoo defeated Nixa in the District final and went on to reach the Missouri Class 5 championship match, where it lost to Lafayette. Fast forward one year and both Kickapoo and Nixa are undefeated a day before the rematch at Nixa.

Kickapoo is 9-0 and has only dropped two sets all season. The Chiefs returned All-State libero Kya Johnson and All-State hitter Bella Faria as well as several other complementary pieces, including setters Reagan Greenway and Hannah Gardner, and DS Emma Eaton.

“The Volleychiefs have lofty goals for this season,” said Kickapoo coach Marci Adams. “In the first couple weeks we’ve shown maturity in our leadership and communication. This team trusts each other and that’s led to several players taking risks and showing up in big plays.  We have several challenges ahead of us that will provide adversity. We want to respond with consistency and grit.”

Nixa is undefeated and preparing for tomorrow’s showdown with Kickapoo

Meanwhile, Nixa, which graduated two All-State players from last year’s 29-8 team, is off to a 5-0 start, which includes a big win over three-time defending Arkansas large-class champion Fayetteville.  The Eagles are led by setter Jacy Bray and two strong middles, senior Ava Owens and junior Chloe Judd, who both hit over .600 in the Fayetteville win.

“The first five games of the season have given us valuable opportunities to learn and grow as a team,” said Nixa coach Annie Zimmerman.  “This week’s game versus Kickapoo will be a big test.  They return the majority of their roster from last year’s state runner up team, so we will have to play at a high level consistently throughout the match to put ourselves in a position to win.  Serve and pass, as always, will dictate a lot in this match, but I think the team that maintains their composure through extended rallies will ultimately determine the final outcome.”

• With Fayetteville having graduated its two All-Americans in Kenna Phelan, now a starting setter at Florida State; and Brooke Rockwell, a Stanford beach volleyball signee; will the torch pass this season to last year’s 6A runner up Southside of Fort Smith?

“Any year, it’s anyone’s game…” said Southside head coach Natalie Throneberry. “I’ve learned that in this sport! I think we have a lot of skill, experience, and a lot of depth that makes us a threat. But so do a lot of other teams. Pressure is a privilege and we don’t take that lightly in our gym.”

Fort Smith Southside may be the best team in Arkansas for 2023/Gunnar Rathbun photo

The Mavericks are 6-0 in 2023 heading into today’s match against 8-2 Har-Ber.

“When we are doing well, we celebrate the good, identify the bad, and have a hard practice the next day,” Throneberry explained. “When we are struggling, we celebrate the good, identify the bad, and have a hard practice the next day. That may be what helped this season start off strong. Our girls chose the word ‘unity’ as their focus word. We’ve spent a lot of energy living that word out and focusing on working as a 29-person unit rather than chasing individual attention and accolades.”

Throneberry added that her team has big goals for 2023 that date back to last year’s final.

“Going back to October 29, 2022, I didn’t come into a locker room full of devastation and despair after falling to Fayetteville in the 6A State Finals,” the coach explained. “There was definitely some sadness being the last match for some of our players, but the mood was different than I’ve ever experienced. They saw everything they accomplished, how well they did, and also how bad they know that they want a chance at that match again in 2023. They weren’t down and out… they were just getting started. That is a big motivator. They came in this season with that mindset and they haven’t been content, always working to expand that mindset. I’m proud of how they’ve handled big moments so far. We will face adversity, but this team is equipped to handle it. We love playing volleyball. We’ll keep playing hard and see how it goes!”

Gabby Orlet (7) is a fierce competitor on the court and off of it

• Last spring, we told you about Gabby Orlet, the 5-11 setter from the St. Louis area who was back on the court after two bouts with cancer.

More than two years ago, when Gabby was in eighth grade, she was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor that disintegrated a vertebra. The daughter of famed high school coach Lisa Orlet missed her freshman season after two back surgeries, and, when the cancer returned in her lungs, she required chemo and immunotherapy that she will need monthly for the rest of her life.

We checked in with this courageous junior and discovered that she is off to a fast start setting the Althoff Catholic Crusaders. Through 23 setsGabby had amassed 192 assists, 75 digs and 30 kills.

“She has her good days and not so good days,” said coach Brice Miller. “But she’s very communicative about when she needs a break due to her condition. She works hard and is a leader on and off the court. Playing wise, she’s one of the best setters in the St. Louis area. She’s worked hard to improve on her location and tempo pushing. She is also one of the more consistently aggressive (and successful) setters when it comes to attacking on the second contact that I’ve seen in a long time.”

Gabby also plays soccer, but her mom said that volleyball is her main love. She hopes to play collegiately.

We will be rooting for her.

• Sunny Hills of Fullerton, California, won the Varsity OC Invitational on Saturday, behind the dominant play of senior Kayla Taylor and strong support from freshmen Olivia Urias and Hannah Oh.

But the Lancers don’t make this 10-Dot national column on the strength of winning a local tournament. They do so because four-year varsity player, 5-7 senior middle Noor Francisco, played in four of the team’s five matches.

Francisco was told that a knee injury would keep her off the court for her senior year. Indeed, she has told my doctors not to walk because the knee lacked stability. A few weeks ago, she had the coaches and players in tears sharing the news of her diagnosis. One week later, with her doctor’s permission, she put down the crutches, got back on the court and practiced with the team. On Saturday, she saw her first action of the year and played in four of the five matches, recording 10 kills, six digs and two blocks.

“Noor is such a determined individual,” said coach Amanda Donaldson. “She can put her mind to anything and she is thrilled to be able to help her beloved teammates this season chase after a league title. After three previous years on varsity grinding day in and day out, we are all overjoyed to see that her senior season won’t be taken away from this kid who has fought so hard to get here.”

Until next time …


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