The AZ East Valley Juniors volleyball team brought home a third-place finish from the Arizona Volleyball Festival, the highest ranking for a local team since the Arizona Storm won it in 2010 by beating a Kane County squad from Illinois.
A 7-4 match record in the 18-year-olds Championship Division included losses to two southern California teams, one from New Mexico, and a 2-1 loss to hometown rival, Barcelona.
EVJ actually beat the eventual champion, California’s LAVA West, on Friday night (2-1) before losing to them in the Sunday finals in a 25-19, 25-20 re-match that dropped them into third place. Second place went to Club Troy, another southern California team.
Although there were 172 teams from Arizona participating this year, teams from California continue to dominate the U-18 division, as eight of the top 10 finishes went to southern California teams. The 29-year-old tournament originated in California.
The next highest-ranked U-18 Arizona team was Club Cactus, which finished in 18th place.
The event has grown over the years and changed host sites several times along the way. The tourney left California and moved to Reno, Nevada, in 2004, and then, in 2009, took up residence in Phoenix, where it uses the cavernous Phoenix Convention Center to accommodate more than 500 teams of girls from ages 12 to 18.
Somewhere in the area of 6,000 athletes spread out over 79 courts, while upwards of 15,000 spectators take in the week-long event. The economic impact is estimated by the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau to be nearly $23 million – which ranks it right behind the No. 1 draw, the PF Chang Rock & Roll Marathon.
Perhaps the most important of those daily visitors to the tourney are the college scouts that are able to evaluate high school volleyball talent from numerous states, all under one roof – and in air-conditioned comfort.
The East Valley Juniors team is coached by Joe Hesse, the head coach at Gilbert High School, and includes players from various Valley schools. Two of Hesse’s players at Gilbert HS are on the squad: Emily Masterson and Cathleen O’Brien.
Also playing for EVJ are Maicee Allen, Taylor Breinholt, Megan Byrnes, Jeni Garvin, Casey Johnson, Hannah Laflin, and Anna Pinkerton.
While Arizona teams continue to struggle in national tournaments like the Festival, there’s more talent working its way up the age division. Arizona placed two teams in the top five finishers in the U-16 division, as a Zona club team finished in third place and another team from the AZ East Valley Juniors program placed fifth.