Last weekend, our Durham Attack Boys 16U Black team travelled to Chicago to compete at the 2016 Boys Winter Volleyball Championships. To date, this was the biggest volleyball tournament in the U.S. Over 300 teams competed under one roof at the McCormick Place Convention Center. In the Boys 16 Open division alone, there were 64 teams participating. By comparison, the other notable tournaments included the Southern California Invitational (54), Rochester Can-Am (32) and Northern California Invitational (19).
With such a big tournament field, teams needed to finish Top 2 in their respective pools each day to remain in contention for the gold medal. Our DA boys sailed thru the first couple of days undefeated. The last day of the tournament highlighted the Top 16 teams competing in single elimination matches. This playoff format was simple. Lose and get knocked out of the tournament.
On the final day, we started the first match in the morning against an unheralded #15 seed, Sports Performance Volleyball Club – Mizuno (Aurora, IL). Despite the relatively low ranking, this SPVB team proved to a huge test for our boys. “Huge” was an understated description of the SPVB players, since their front-court lineup consisted of players ranging from 6’4” to 6’8” (including the setter). We had lots of trouble hitting against such a big block and quickly dropped the first set, 20-25. The start of the second set didn’t change much. Initially, our offense sputtered against the SPVB blockers, and we fell behind 10-18. With such a big deficit, our coaches used both timeouts early, substituted a couple of players and tried to find a catalyst to spark the team. We started to surge to build some momentum and rallied back to reduce the lead to 16-22, before the opposing coach called a timeout. With only 3 points away from defeat, would our rally be too late?
Good fortune finally smiled down upon us. After this timeout, the opposing setter tried to dump the ball on a second hit. We were ready. Our setter picked it up. We then set a high ball out to left-side. Our outside hitter took a full swing against 4 solid blocking hands pressed over the net. Our spike was blocked straight down. The opposing middle blocker landed and immediately turned towards his teammates to celebrate… not realizing that the ball had bounced off the foot of one of our players. The ball was alive. Reflexively, one of our other players popped the ball back up with his elbow, and luckily the ball looped back towards our left-side hitter. Without an approach, he jumped straight up and swung again. The opposing middle blocker tried to turn back towards the net to block it again, but this time, it was too late. The volleyball squibbed down their side of the net. Point for Durham Attack!! This was the proverbial “turning point”, as this fortuitous play electrified our team.
For the rest of the second set, we battled back refusing to give away any more easy points. We finally caught up to even the score, but still faced match point elimination twice at 23-24 and 24-25. Our boys managed to side-out both times, and we eventually won 27-25 to force a third set. With this unbelievable comeback, the SPVB team played stunned in the deciding set. We took advantage of their disoriented play and won 15-10!
In the quarter-finals, we faced the Ocean Bay Quicksilver Volleyball Club (Deerfield Beach, FL) on the venue’s “Showcase Court”. By far, this opponent had the most colourful uniforms of the tournament. Despite the bright, jazzy neon pinks, oranges, yellows and greens, our DA boys remained focused on the task at hand.
In the previous match, we were undersized against our opponents. In this match, however, we possessed the height advantage at the net. Despite being a slightly shorter team, their offense was fast and their attackers hit smart. Their setter ran lots of quick sets in the middle and inside shoot sets in the lane. The outside hitters painted the lines with their kill shots on several occasions. Nevertheless, we were able to match their offense point-for-point. In the end, our offensive firepower overwhelmed them, and we won the match in two straight sets (25-19, 25-20).
For the semi-finals, we competed against a local team, Ultimate Gold Volleyball Club (Chicago, IL). Unlike the previous matches, this team featured a set of gifted athletes. Although not remarkably tall, each player possessed a great vertical jump and solid fundamental skills. The setter was quite exceptional. In appearance, the setter did not look very athletic. But looks can be deceiving. His hands were quite soft and his release was probably the quickest in the tournament. Our defense had trouble reading the setter, and our block was late more than a few times.
In the first set, we fell behind early by just a few points. We rallied back but just couldn’t muster enough to overcome this slight deficit. Never once could we overtake the lead. The opponent didn’t overpower us, but they did play great side-out ball. We lost 22-25. Once again, we had our backs against the wall. Win the next set or go home.
We started the second set very slow. Early on, we fell behind significantly, 6-14. Yikes! Another 8-point deficit in a must-win situation. Can we come back a second time? Our DA boys raised their intensity to another level. We started to chip away at the lead. At 17-22, we strung together some incredible plays. Our libero dug deeper to keep the ball alive. Our setter distributed the ball with pinpoint accuracy out to the antennae. Our outside hitters swung higher to tool some kill shots off the blocker hands. Our middle blockers penetrated the net further and forced opposing attackers to swing wide and out-of-bounds. We clawed back to finally tie the score 22-22. After trading points, the opposing team made a couple of consecutive errors, and we won 25-23.
In the third and deciding set, both teams battled hard right out of the gate. Points were traded back and forth. Neither team could take a sizeable lead. At the turn, we were down by one point: 7-8. Both teams pounded the ball to earn rally points. After a couple of incredible defensive digs by the other team, we fell slightly behind, 11-13. On the next play, our hitter looped a change-of-pace shot into the far back corner to score. Then we double-blocked their outside power hitter straight down. We evened the score, 13-13. After an opposing timeout, we traded kill shots to remain tied at 14-14. On the next serve reception, our right-side hitter pummeled an attack down the line. Their libero took it off the chest and couldn’t dig it up. Match point, 15-14. Our serve. It was their turn to attack. After a decent pass, a high ball was set out to left side to match up their power hitter against our undersized setter. Big swing. Our setter soft-blocked the attack down the line. The ball floated straight up, and looped back over their defending libero into the far corner. We won 16-14. Whew!! We survived another massive come-from-behind win.
In the finals, our DA boys faced the Outriggers Volleyball Club (Honolulu, HI). Yes, this is a team from Hawaii. Long way to travel. At first glance, this opposing team wasn’t very tall or physically imposing. Besides their 6’4” setter, every other player was noticeably shorter than our team. Again, looks can be very deceiving. Despite being a lot shorter, this team possessed amazing ball control skills… probably acquired from playing beach volleyball all year round. By far, OVC was the best defensive team in the tournament.
We started the first set completely flat. No energy whatsoever. Nothing was working. Lots of unforced errors. We fell behind considerably. By the time the score was 5-12, our coaches had burned thru both timeouts. We completely “laid an egg” and lost 17-25. It didn’t even look like the opposition had worked up a sweat.
Perhaps our boys were emotionally spent? Could we raise our play to the next level? Could we rally to come back one more time? In the second set, our boys responded and rebounded in true DA fashion. We dominated the net play with big blocks and big attacks. We absolutely overpowered OVC and won convincingly 25-19. Unbelievably, this was the first set loss for OVC during the entire tournament.
In the third and deciding set for the gold medal, we carried the momentum to jump out to an early lead. We started taking advantage of our height difference with our 6’ 6” middle blocker hitting over their block. But OVC’s team defense was simply outstanding. We kept hammering the attack with lots of pace and velocity. Frustratingly, they kept popping the ball up and kept the play alive. This was the key difference towards the end, as we lost 11-15.
Overall, this was a great tournament. It certainly can be considered a defining point in our season. Solid contributions were made by all 10 players. Individually, different players stepped up at key times to elevate the team play during the tournament. As a team, we made adjustments to compete against so many different styles of competition: a tall blocking team (Sports Performance), a quick and fast offensive team (Ocean Bay Quicksilver), a very athletic team (Ultimate Gold) and a superbly defensive team (Outriggers).
In the face of adversity, our DA boys bounced back several times to overcome huge deficits. This mental toughness and never-give-up attitude will further develop our team character. Halfway thru the season, and our team is developing right on track: team chemistry, team resilience and team cohesion (both on and off the court). We are all quite proud of this Silver Medal achievement against some of the best teams south of the border.
Go Attack Go!!