Some dreams seem just too big to accomplish, like a mirage in a vast, empty desert.
That’s what a boys national title seemed like for members of Spiral Volleyball’s Boys 18 Under Armour team. They would sit in the stands and simply watch the teams play on the championship courts, wanting to be there but just unable to make it.
“Being from Arizona, you don’t see a lot of good volleyball,” said J.T. Hatch, Spiral 18 Under Armour’s outside hitter. “We would all be on the top court watching the teams … I don’t think we’d ever thought we would ever be on the top court playing.
“It was kind of like those were our heroes that we watched and we really kind of admired them; we wanted to be like them because we were from Arizona, we don’t see that a lot.”
Indoor volleyball isn’t a popular sport in Arizona. It is starting to pick up traction slowly but isn’t anywhere near the level of football, basketball or baseball.
The Spiral boys’ success was not a spontaneous, sudden burst to greatness. Like all great things, it took time to develop.
It started with an idea that merely doing well in Arizona, a state not known for producing top-tier volleyball, wasn’t enough. Assistant coach Justin Hobson wanted something more.
“Since Day One, that was just what we had pitched,” he said. “It was like ‘we want to do something big,’ ”
It began when a core group of players — Jack “Duke” Lawless, Ryne Benson, Carson Flood and Billy Andrew, along with Hobson — started at Club Red, a well-established name in the Arizona volleyball scene. That first year was a good one as they finished fifth in the 2012 USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships in Dallas.
They had tasted some success, but their appetite, instead of being filled, was merely whetted.
As they moved on to compete in the 17-and-younger division, Hatch joined the club, and their success continued. They placed fifth again in the 2013 junior national championships, this time in the 17 Open division, in Reno, Nev. With one open title under their belt, they began to set their sights on the top prize in junior boys’ volleyball — an 18 Open title.
In order to do that, they would need a little help.
Cristina Benson, the boys’ program director at Club Red, and Molly Stark, founder and club director of Arizona powerhouse Spiral Volleyball, knew each other quite well. Benson’s daughter Amanda played for Stark at Spiral.
The two were at nationals last summer when, in the course of casual conversation, an idea was formed. Why not combine the talent and personnel of Club Red with the facilities of Spiral?
“It was good for us because we had started talking about building a boys program,” Stark said. “She had a coaching staff already set in place. She already had some boys that were already involved in Club Red, and it was just a natural kind of transition for both clubs.
“We worked together, we collaborated and next thing you know, we have this incredible boys team plus other great quality kids … and great quality coaches that came along.”
With all of the pieces finally in place, the time had come to put the puzzle together.
Spiral’s run started about as Hatch and everyone had expected, walloping nearly every team they faced in their regional season.
“Honestly, they were really boring in Arizona,” Hatch said of the first few tournaments in which the team played. “We didn’t have a lot of competition here … we dropped like two sets the entire year.”
That dominance, however, bred a level of complacency. Spiral 18 Under Armour wasn’t pushed the entire year and soon they paid for it.
In January, at the Southern California Volleyball Association Invitational, with a bid to the national tournament on the line, the Spiral team finished in 25th place, well below the line to earn a nationals berth. Stark called the tournament “a hearty slap to the face.”
Reeling, the Spiral players and their parents made a snap decision. This would not be the end of their season — not yet.
They decided to go to the NCVA/No Dinx Far Western Bid Tournament the following weekend to take one more shot at earning a bid to nationals.
When they arrived, none of the California teams took Spiral 18 Under Armour seriously. After all, they had been crushed at their previous tournament, how could they possibly hang with the elite California teams?
“California teams would be like ‘You guys are from Arizona. You’re not going to beat us,’ ” Hobson said. “Everybody discredited us.”
Spiral 18 Under Armour proved them all wrong, going 8-1 and punching their ticket to USA Volleyball’s Boys Junior National Championships in Houston.
With their goal finally in sight, Spiral 18 Under Armour settled in to make their run at a title.
The team experienced a mix of emotions upon arriving at nationals. Some players had been to national tournaments before, while others, like libero Saige Gonsalves, had not.
Gonsalves admits he was nervous, but the team honed in on what they had come to Houston to do.
“I just thought to myself ‘This is it, this is our last tournament,’ ” Gonsalves said. “It doesn’t matter if we have nerves. Whatever happens, happens, but we need to come out here, we need to do our best, we need to do what we all came here to do.”
What they did was come out on fire. They ran through the tournament, winning all 11 games and dropping only four sets along the way to cap an incredible 78-8 season.
They had done it. They had made their way to the championship court that they had sat in the stands and watched so many times before.
Not only had they made it to the top court — they won on it.
“It was really cool just making the progress and getting so much better like we did that we’re finally that top team,” Hatch said.
“It’s crazy to think that there’s kids looking at us now,” Jack Lawless added.
“We’re the team to watch now.”
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