From a numbers perspective, the odds of a seven-girl team competing against a program fielding hundreds or thousands of players had little chance to make any noise at a national level.
The East Columbus Volleyball Club 15 Flames defied any critics at the 45th AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports and the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.
Going 10-1, the Flames finished fifth of 172 teams in the 15 Classic division. They defeated teams from Louisiana, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, California and Minnesota before falling in the quarterfinals.
While the team is based in Columbus, all of its players are from Jackson County.
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Seymour, Brownstown Central, Immanuel Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran schools were all represented at the tournament.
“We’ve discussed with different coaches how big their clubs are,” Flames coach Faith Wilder-Newland said. “We had one person who said, ‘Yeah, our club is a little down. We only have 1,200 kids this year.’ My husband said, ‘We have 21.’ They asked if it was 2,100. He said, ‘No, 21.’ It’s kind of funny. You tell someone you’re bringing one team to nationals. You have so many mega-huge clubs. We are competing against the numbers. We had two teams. These kids kind of came together locally.”
Wilder-Newland said the team stepped up to the challenge.
“The big thing was that we only had two freshmen (in the 2017-18 school year),” Wilder-Newland said. “Most of the teams were all freshmen. We had two freshmen, four eighth-graders and one seventh-grader. To finish fifth, with that age of kids is just incredible. We were one win away from standing on the podium with Mickey Mouse. It was a huge accomplishment for this group.”
While Wilder-Newland has brought numerous teams to nationals, she won’t soon forget this group.
“I’ve coached a team that was third as a 13U, and my husband coached a team that was second and third, but this is so much of a bigger accomplishment for this group because of their age and how much they had to overcome,” Wilder-Newland said. “We only had seven kids down there and some injury.”
Wilder-Newland said the girls brought a lot of energy to the tournament.
“They played hard,” she said. “We got a lot of mileage out of a couple of hitters. The other hitters really played smart and played their role. Our top hitter/blocker was Kendra McCory, and Saige Stahl was our other middle, and she helped a lot in blocking and hitting, as well. Kayla Guthrie was probably our leading outside hitter.
“Hayley Harpe is actually a setter, but at nationals, we had to have her hit left side because we had an injury. She did very well. She was very efficient and didn’t make a lot of errors. I think Reagan Nuss made us go in a lot of ways. She ran a lot of balls down as a setter and played tight ball down the net. Kamzi (Gross) and Hayley and Kayla did a lot of the defense and were very efficient. It was a good mixture of hardworking kids. They had a lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
Gross, who had been to nationals before, said the team played well together.
“It was really fun,” the Trinity Lutheran incoming freshman said. “We only had seven players, but we played really well. We played our hardest. I think we knew each other a little bit before (going to nationals). We just got closer and closer over the year.”
At the conclusion of the tournament, it was announced that Nuss, a setter, earned All-American honors.
“It was really a great experience,” the incoming Brownstown Central freshman said. “Basically, a coach picks a player from their team, and then you go to an awards ceremony. You listen, and if your name is called, you go up and get an award and your picture taken. I was really surprised when I found out I got it. It was really an honor to be noticed that way.”
Wilder-Newland said she will not coach the same group of girls again but will focus on younger squads that feed into Trinity Lutheran in the future. She is in her inaugural season of heading the program.