The old adage, often misquoted, says “The proof of the pudding is in the tasting.”
It’s not just true of puddings. Or food, for that matter. It holds true for team sports.
Coaches will tell you one of their most important tasks, especially early in a season, is to teach their team how to win. To that end, they seek out the toughest competition they can find in order to test themselves. Because if you’re going to play your best, you must face the toughest competition.
Mead took a big taste of upper-echelon high school volleyball by playing in the Nike Tournament of Champions last week in Phoenix. The tourney drew most of the top 25 high school programs in the country and filled out 100 entries with teams that all have a claim on being one of the top teams in their respective states.
“I’m sure every one of the teams we played or was there is going to be in their state tournaments,” senior setter Allie Flynn said. “Having played them is going to make it easier for us to come back home and play. I think some of the teams that we’ve played before are going to see a much better team when we play the next team.”
The Panthers played seven matches over two days in the desert.
“We had a good tournament and played some high-quality teams,” Mead coach Shawn Wilson said. “They power-seeded this tournament and they used a number of different venues, so we didn’t get the chance to see some of the best teams that were there.
“These are teams with multiple Division I-caliber players, players who are 6-foot-3, 6-4 or 6-5. It’s unheard of in this area to see that many players at that height. You’re lucky if you get one.”
It’s not that area teams lack Division I-caliber talent, Wilson stressed. But D-I players with that kind of height don’t come around often, and rarely have company on a roster.
“We have D-I talent,” Wilson said. “But when we do it’s a setter, a defensive specialist or a libero. We have skill players. Our libero, Castan Sturm, is going to Washington State to be a libero.”
Wilson is pleased with how his Panthers responded to the competition.
“We have a good team, and we’re learning how to compete,” he said. “We played about the same caliber teams as the top teams in our state. We didn’t get the chance to play some of those lights-out teams. But we faced some really good teams, and we lost about as much as we won. But I would say the losses were quality losses if there is such a thing. We always seemed to play three sets against them and if we lost a set it was close. I think we lost one set 33-31 – and that’s when you’re playing to 25 points.
“I was just so pleased we were able to get into those situations.”
Wilson arranged an added benefit Friday night, taking the whole squad to watch an Arizona State University home volleyball match.
“That was a good experience for them, too,” he said. “They got to see Division I volleyball together. They’ve seen some with Washington State, but this was in a different place.”
Big tournaments are a staple of the club volleyball scene. College recruiters flock to them like hungry people to a smorgasbord.
It was the same in Phoenix, even though college teams are in the middle of their season. Recruiters from across the country were there in force.
“There was even a separate page on the tournament web page where college recruiters could sign up and they got detailed information where players were and whether they’d committed to a school.
“You know they’re there, but you didn’t really know if they were watching you until they came up to talk to you after the match.”
Flynn said she wasn’t approached.
“I’m already committed for next year,” she said. “I’m going to play at Northwest College in Kirkland (Washington).”
Wilson said his squad raised money through a team fundraiser and used the proceeds from the team volleyball camp it runs each summer, with some funds going toward the trip and the rest going toward uniforms, nets and equipment.
“I like taking the team to big tournaments like this because we get a lot out of it,” he said. We can manage it about every two years or so. The last time, we went to a tournament in La Jolla outside of San Diego..”
The proof of the trip started this week. The Panthers’ first game back was a tough Greater Spokane League battle with Gonzaga Prep on Tuesday. Tonight they take on Lake City with Central Valley, Ferris and University as upcoming opponents before the Panthers close out their regular season against Shadle Park.
Before leaving for Phoenix, Mead was 2-2, beating Lewis and Clark and Rogers but losing to Coeur d’Alene and in four sets to rival Mt. Spokane.
“I can’t really point to any one single player and say, ‘She really got better,’ ” Flynn said. “I think we improved as a team in every match.
“I’m excited to play the rest of our schedule. I think teams won’t know we’ve been to Phoenix, and they’re going to underestimate us based on who we were as a team before we went.”
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