Originally posted on: http://rise.espn.go.com
Written by: Walter Villa
8 of 10 girls are back from 16u national championship team; 9 of 10 are going to D-I schools
ORLANDO, Fla. – Anyone who thought Sky High Volleyball reached its zenith last year clearly hasn’t talked to Scott Harris.
Sky High has won four national titles, including the past two 16-under AAU championships.
But Harris, who founded the club with his wife Sherry in 1989, thinks his 17 Black team is the program’s best yet. That team will continue pool play on Tuesday in the 17u open division at the 38th AAU Junior National Girls’ Volleyball Championships, part of the ESPN RISE Girls Showcase, after going 5-1 over the first two days.
“We’re absolutely better than last year,” Harris said of the team, which is based in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, Ill. “Eight of our 10 girls (all rising seniors) were on last year’s (national title 16-under) team. Now they have another year of experience, and we’ve added two excellent players.”
The newcomers are 6-2 middle blocker Daiva Wise, who has committed to Toledo, and 5-10 opposite hitter Mary Striedl, who is bound for Pitt.
That those two players have earned college scholarships is not uncommon for 17 Black. Nine of the 10 players have already committed to Division I schools.
Perhaps that helps explain why 17 Black is seeded second, trailing only Atlanta’s A-5. The rivals split a pair of matches this season, with 17 Black winning in February and A-5 taking the rematch in April.
Harris, though, isn’t overconfident, especially after Sky High lost its third and final match on Monday, falling in straight sets to High Performance of St. Louis 17 Gold.
“This Class of 2012 is extremely competitive,” he said. “There are probably 10 teams who can win this tournament.”
But only one team has 5-10 Abby Gilleland, the Saint Louis-bound setter who powers the 17 Black attack.
“She’s our captain – an amazing athlete and an amazing leader,” Harris said of Gilleland, the MVP of last year’s AAU championships. “If she were not on this team, it would be totally different.”
Gilleland is far from 17 Black’s only standout, however. Amy Dion, a 5-6 defensive specialist who has committed to Maryland, and Ashley Rosch, a 6-0 middle blocker and Illinois State recruit, were named All-Americans last year.
Amelia Anderson, a 6-2 middle blocker who committed to Indiana, made the all-tournament team – along with Rosch – at the 2010 USA Junior Nationals in Reno.
Samantha Boesch, a 6-0 outside hitter, committed to Wake Forest. Amanda Orchard, a 6-1 outside hitter, is bound for Pitt. Melanie Jereb, a 6-1 outside hitter, has pledged to Creighton.
Only Samantha Bohne, a 5-6 defensive specialist, has yet to pick a college.
“It’s a great group of athletes,” Harris said. “We have so much depth. If someone is off, I can make a change, and we don’t miss a beat.”
While there is no denying the team’s talent, Gilleland said the club’s chemistry is what sets it apart.
“We have an incredible bond,” she said. “That’s something you don’t find in every team.”
Anderson said that bond was only enhanced when Wise and Striedl joined the team.
“We took them right into our team,” Anderson said. “We were doing team sleepovers and movie nights with them before the season even started. We love them.”
On the court, the team plays with machine-like precision. If there is a weakness, Gilleland said, it’s on defense.
“We struggled for a long time with our blocking and ball control,” she said. “But we’ve practiced a lot, and we’ve improved incredibly.”
Harris has noticed and admits that even he is surprised by the accomplishments of the overall program, which began in 1989 with four teams. Within five years, they had 30 teams, and Harris decided to leave his finance job to run the club full-time.
“It was a gamble,” Harris said. “But volleyball is a passion of mine.”
Sherry Harris, who had been the volleyball coach at nearby McHenry Junior College, also gave up her job when Sky High took flight.
Today, Sky High has 70 teams at five locations, drawing players from northwest/northern Illinois to southern Wisconsin.
“We’ve really come on strong the past five or six years,” Scott Harris said. “More top athletes are migrating to our program because of our success.”
The big question now is if 17 Black can leave Orlando this week as national champs.
“We’re extremely confident,” Gilleland said, “in a non-cocky way.”
Gilleland said her team struggles at times with “lower teams,” but motivation won’t be a problem if they play A-5 or any other elite club.
Trying to suppress a smile, Gilleland added: “We love being the underdogs.”