By Phil Brozynski
More than 1,500 fans jammed steamy Neuqua Valley High School Wednesday to watch the nation’s best junior club volleyball team battle one of Japan’s top high school school teams.
Sports Performance 18 Elite overcame a 20-15 deficit in game two to defeat Kyushu Bunka Gakuen 25-12, 25-22. The teams played a third game as an exhibition with the visitors from Japan winning 33-31.
Sports Performance used its superior height and physical strength to great advantage against the smaller, quicker visitors. Still, a few of the balls that came back took the local all-stars by surprise.
“There’s no question we’re more physical than they are, but there’s also no question they have phenomenal skill,” Sports Performance coach Rick Butler said. “We knew they would dig a lot of balls. It was a great match”
This was the first trip to the United States for many of the Kyushu Bunka Gakuen players, who arrived Tuesday for the exhibition and to participate in the Junior Volleyball Directors Association tournament this weekend in Louisville, Kentucky.
Among the standouts for Kyushu Bunka Gakuen, a year-round private school of about 700 students, are middle hitter Hiroka Kinoshita and outside hitters Mari Yamada, Kanako Maruyama and Saki Minemura.
“We have not had a chance to do any sightseeing,” Minemura said through an interpreter. “We had to study. We will do some sightseeing beginning July 1.”
Despite facing the likes of the 6-foot-2 Colleen Ward, 6-1 Kelly Murphy and 6-foot Katie Post, Minemura said Sports Performance was not the biggest team Kyushu Bunka Gakuen has faced.
“China,” Minemura said. “They’re big.”
Prior to taking on Kyushu Bunka Gakuen, Sports Performance 18 Elite dominated the field at the 35th Amateur Athletic Union Junior National Volleyball Championships in Lake Buena Vista, California June 20-22.
Former Joliet Catholic great and Florida-bound Kelly Murphy, who garnered Most Valuable Player honors for the second year in a row, led Sports Performance past Munciana Samurai in the 18 Open final.
Other standouts for the national champs included Colleen Ward (Naperville North/Florida), Becca Zlabis (Wheaton Warrenville South/Michigan State) and Megan Barnicle (St. Francis/Notre Dame).
Sports Performance lost just one game during the tournament. Sports Performance 18 White, the club’s third team, defeated Sports Performance 18 Red to reach the semifinals before falling to the eventual champions 25-12, 20-25, 15-11.
Hampshire’s Kara Wehrs was named the most outstanding player after leading Club Fusion 16 Black over 1st Alliance for the 16s title at the PrepVolleyball.com Classic in Wisconsin Dells on June 21.
Other award winners among the 16s at the Classic included: 1st Alliance’s Annemarie Hickey (Joliet Catholic), best attacker; Jacqui Seidel (St. Charles East), best blocker; and Emily Weber (Rosary), best teammate.
Fusion also won the Classic Cup, awarded to the club with the best overall performance at the tournament.
Rolling Thunder’s Kayla Price was name the best setter in the 15s division at the PrepVolleyball.com Classic. Price led Rolling Thunder to the quarterfinals before they lost to Fusion 15 Black.