Just ask the Lake Volleyball Club U15 Blue team, a squad comprised this season of girls from Lake Stevens, Snohomish, Monroe, Marysville Pilchuck and Archbishop Murphy high schools. In recent years the Lake Stevens team has been on the verge of a breakthrough season, but unfortunately they could never get closer than, well, close.
But a few weeks ago, the girls got their long-awaited breakthrough. In a qualifying tournament in Auburn, the team earned a spot in next week's USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championships in Dallas, where they begin play on Monday.
"For two years these guys have really been on the edge," said Keith Manske, the team's head coach. "They just kept barely missing it." And in a national qualifier where only two teams advance, "it's heartbreaking to get third."
In fact, it happened earlier this season at a qualifier in Spokane. "Everybody was bawling because they'd just missed it," Manske said. "That's how big a deal it was.
But the team got back to work and had another chance at the Auburn tournament. "Our focus was to get into the top two, and when we did it was a big relief," Manske said. "It's something they've really been gunning for."
Securing a place at nationals "is so exciting," said Jessica Brennis, a sophomore-to-be at Snohomish. "We've been working for this since we were 11 or 12 years old. We've been playing and learning together, and now we're actually going somewhere with this."
"It's really exciting," added Sophie Swanson, an incoming sophomore at Lake Stevens. "We worked so hard all season and we finally made it."
The Lake Volleyball Club is one of about 50 similar clubs in Washington, and one of about a a few thousand dollars (the cost varies depending on the level of travel) to practice and play through the winter, spring and into the early summer. Since high school volleyball is a fall sport, those who also play in clubs are essentially year-round players.
For girls who want to play in college, "club is a definite key," Manske said. When club teams qualify for nationals, college coaches start calling on the theory that good teams have good players. Already, he said, "the girls are sending out résumés."
The national tournament at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas will bring together hundreds of teams from U12 to U18. The Lake Stevens team, one of 48 teams in the third tier (American) of U15, will have pool matches for the first three days, followed by a final day of a single-elimination format.
And the Lake Stevens club is not the only team headed to nationals with athletes from Snohomish County. The Northwest Juniors Elite U18 and U14 teams, both based in Edmonds, will also compete.
Nationally, many of the premier teams typically come from the volleyball-hotbed states of California and Texas. But Lake Stevens often plays out-of-state clubs at various tournaments, so the coaches and players understand the level of competition.
"The California teams are super good because they have the beach to play on all the time," said Jessica Clark, who will be a sophomore at Monroe. "But the good thing about playing better teams is that it makes us play our best. You just get so much more adrenalin in you."
"I know we're good enough to beat the teams that are going to be at nationals," Swanson said. "If we focus and keep our heads in the game, we can do really well."
In a field of 48 teams, Manske expects that Lake Stevens "will probably be in the top 12 teams. And then it really just comes down to how we play in any given match. We could lose to a team that ends up No. 48 because we had a bad game. But we could also beat the No. 1 team. That's how close it's going to be.
"It's going to be tough because you don't get (to nationals) without being really good," he said. "But the good thing is, when this team hits the court to play they're absolutely tigers. They just go at it with everything they have."
The path to a national championship is long, difficult and with little margin for error. "But if we play like we know we can play," Brennis said, "we actually have a shot of taking the whole tournament."
Courtney Fitzmaurice, S, M. Pilchuck
Megan Holman, MB, Lake Stevens
Sophie Swanson, OH, Lake Stevens
Amanda Stainer, RS, Lake Stevens
Alexandra Hadden, S, Monroe
Taylor Webber, RS, Lake Stevens
Jessica Clark, OH, Monroe
Madison Solis, L, Lake Stevens
Gabrielle Flake, L, Arch. Murphy
Jazzmyn Poirier, MB, Snohomish
Jessica Brennis, OH, Snohomish
Cyrene Hertzog, OH, Snohomish
Keith Manske, Head coach
Greg Post, Assistant coach
Nikki Baehm, Assistant coach
Positions: L—Libero; MB—Middle blocker; OH—Outside hitter; RS—Right side; S—Setter.
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