Three rising seniors from North Buncombe and Reynolds were part of the Upward Stars (S.C.) 17 and under premier team that won an AAU 17 national championship Tuesday in Orlando, Fla.
Black Hawks libero/defensive specialist Morgan Ballard was the 2014 Mountain Athletic Conference Player of the Year. She received All-American recognition at the AAU tournament.
Ballard was joined on last year’s All-MAC team by the Rockets’ duo of Emily Russell (a middle blocker) and Courtney Koehler (setter/right-side hitter).
Koehler has already committed to play college volleyball for South Carolina.
The Upward Stars organization is based out of Spartanburg, S.C., and this was the club’s first-ever national championship.
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Upward Stars Upstate U17 Premier Team Wins AAU National Volleyball Championship
First National Championship for Upward Stars Organization
Spartanburg, SC – June 24, 2015 – On June 23rd, nine (9) female athletes from 6 different high schools in South Carolina and North Carolina came together under the leadership of Head Coach Kevin Wentzel and Assistant Coach Stephanie Palmer to win the U17 Premier Team Division 42nd Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Girls’ Junior National Volleyball Championship. The Championship was held from June 15 – 26 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports and the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL. This year’s tournament set a Guinness World Record for the largest volleyball tournament in the world. Over 2,100 teams competed in 29 different divisions, were cheered on by 38,000+ spectators, and played on 175 courts hosted at 2 venues.
Coach Kevin (in his 6th season of coaching club volleyball, a former Division I assistant volleyball coach at Wofford College, and a 1st team EIVA outside hitter for the Penn State Nittany Lions Men’s Volleyball Team from 2001 – 2006) saw his Upward Stars Upstate U17 team have great success leading up to the AAU National Volleyball Championships. The team played in 12 tournaments during their season, winning 68 out of 80 matches, an impressive 85% win percentage. Entering the championship, they ranked #1 in their Palmetto Region and 56th nationally. Highlighting the season was four (4) tournament wins at the K2 Elite Invitational in Louisville, TN; the SAVL Alliance Classic in Greenville, SC; Beast of the Southeast Invitational in Atlanta, GA; and AAU Super Regional Coastal Classic Volleyball Championship in Myrtle Beach, SC. The Upward Stars Upstate U17 team also came close with four runner-up finishes at the Winter Bump Elite in Spartanburg, SC while playing in the 18 Open Division; SAVL Icebreaker in Hendersonville, NC; SAVL Spring Madness in Fayetteville, NC; and SAVL Power Championships in Myrtle Beach, SC.
“Physically, they are all an amazing group of girls, and they always have a desire to win. From top to bottom, every one of them had a crazy ability to make plays when we needed them most. All the girls really function as a team. We didn’t just have one star player who did everything. Everyone on our team contributed throughout the season. They each had a specific role they needed to fill, and they did it. They were more than individual athletes – they were a team. That is what I love about these athletes,” said Coach Kevin leading up to the AAU Championship.
On the first day of the tournament, the Upward Stars Upstate team did very well winning all 3 of their pool play matches. According to Assistant Coach Stephanie Palmer (in her 2nd year as an assistant coach after completing a successful college career as a setter from 2010 – 2014 with Winthrop and Samford), “One of the keys to success for this tournament was the fact that our team got pushed hard and faced tough competition on the very first day of the tournament. This set the tone for our team.” The Upward Stars Upstate team faced an early challenge in pool play from Atlantic Valley Red, a premier team from Westfield, New Jersey. The Upward Stars lost their first set of the match, one of only 4 sets lost in the entire tournament, but they fought back to force a 3rd set and prevailed with a 15 – 13 win.
Entering the second day, the Upward Star Upstate team was in their comfort zone and fed off the confidence they gained from winning every match the previous day. The team improved and continued to get better with each set and match. They swept all three matches of pool play.
Day 3, the team came out strong winning their first 2 matches despite the stronger competition. However, they faced Eastside Cleveland Juniors (ECJ) 17 Elite, a tough team from Cleveland, Ohio. The Upward Stars Upstate team lost their only match of the tournament, including a heartbreaking 2nd set 28-30 loss. Fortunately, the Upward Stars Upstate team came out of their pool ranked #1 because of the scores and success of earlier matches. The average margin of victory in pool play for the Upward Stars Upstate team was an impressive 9.7 points per set.
From there, the Upward Stars team entered into a Do-Or-Die Challenge Match. There were 9 pools of teams, and the top 2 teams from each pool advanced to the Challenge Match. When a team won, they moved to the Championship Division, and when a team lost, they went to compete in the Consultation Division. “We were nervous and not sure how the girls were going to respond after losing their first match of the tournament. We went from playing our worst match of the weekend to coming back and playing the one of our best matches of the tournament,” said Coach Kevin. The Upward Stars Upstate team quickly won their match and moved on to the Championship Match on the final and fourth day.
Championship Day started with an early morning game at 8 a.m. The team was facing the reality of “must wins” single elimination format in quarterfinals, semi-finals, and finals all in one day. The motivated squad of nine (9) came out firing early and according to Coach Stephanie, “They played the best volleyball we have played all season. The players had energy and were playing with purpose.” A real boost came in the semi-finals against Northern Lights Premier 17U team from Burnsville, Minnesota. Coach Kevin added, “The Northern Lights team was incredible. They hit the ball extremely hard and had huge blocks, but thankfully we played the best match of the entire season!”
The Championship finals matched the Upward Stars team against a resilient and scrappy Tampa Bay Volleyball Academy (TBVA) from Tampa Bay, Florida. The TBVA team was on a roll coming into the finals, having won their last 9 matches in a row. The game was featured on ESPN 3 and broadcasted nationally. The Upward Stars Upstate team came out flat in the first set, possibly overwhelmed by being on center court with announcers, big scoreboard, TV cameras, college recruiters, and the realism of what they were playing for. Meanwhile, TBVA was playing extremely aggressive, hitting spikes over blocks, and finding holes on the court. TBVA easily won the first set 18 – 25 and looked like they were going to dominate the remainder of the match. However at the start of the second set, the Upward Stars Upstate team of 15, 16 and 17 year old athletes settled down and start running the game plan that Coach Kevin and Coach Stephanie developed. Once the offense starting going, combined with some early successful blocks, the team gained confidence and kept pushing the pace. Upward Stars Upstate swiftly won the second set 25 – 9. The momentum continued into the final set and saw the Upward Stars Upstate team win 15 – 11 to claim the AAU National Championship title.
After the initial excitement of the game was over and Coach Kevin had a chance to talk with his assistant coach, players, and parents, he reflected, “This championship means so much and goes far beyond our team. This win helps put the state of South Carolina on the map from a junior volleyball perspective. We have not been known as producing powerhouse teams from our state, and that is starting to change with the high caliber of athletes on our teams. This championship also helps bring recognition and awareness to Upward Sports nationally as they expand into performance level sports for volleyball and basketball. And for our Upward Stars Upstate club, this is something our Volleyball Club Director Corey Helle has been working on for a long time. The support we get from our club is amazing from the state-of-the-art facility in Spartanburg, to the community of passionate coaches and trainers, to the dedication of focusing on the long-term success of an athlete and not just the short term gain, to the actual commitment from all of our players and parents. It’s really incredible. This is a total club win today.”
Coach Kevin concluded, “One unique thing about Upward Stars program is our commitment to developing the total athlete through our 360 Progression. During the season, our players progressed so well physically; however, we had to get over a lot of mental hurdles. Our team struggled at times during the season to overcome adversity and to finish strong in games. This is something we focused on for the past few months and the girls continued to get better and better. And it really showed today when we lost our first set in the championship match, and they were able to come together, rise up, and win.”
AAU All-American honors were given to 3 Upward Stars Upstate 17U players. Defensive Specialist Morgan Ballard, Outsider Hitter Marianna Warren, and Outsider Hitter Thayer Hall. Thayer also received overall 17U Premier MVP Honors. This is extremely impressive considering Thayer, standing tall at 6’2″, is only 15 years old and a freshman in high school.
Ben Baldridge, the Upward Stars Upstate Director comments, “We are so proud of Coach Kevin and Coach Stephanie as well as each player on their 17U’s Upward Stars Upstate team. This is championship is about the girls. They worked harder than anyone could imagine. God has brought a special group of young ladies together, and I am so thankful they could be under coaches who love the Lord and are experts in the sport. Winning the AAU National Championship is a great reflection on our entire club. And knowing that the number of athletes in our developmental programs continues to grow, as well as the increase in passionate, mission aligned coaches, the future looks bright for our Upward Stars Upstate club. It goes to show that you can do things with integrity and when you play with purpose and compete at the highest level in the nation. Our club, staff, and community couldn’t be more proud at what this team has accomplished.”