Grace Nelson was still sleeping with her medal around her neck days after the Nebraska Elite under-16 VICI won a title at the AAU national volleyball championships.
Teammate Alli Schomers understands. She’s not ready to move on either.
“It feels pretty amazing,” she said. “It’s still pretty surreal. I don’t think it has sunk in with any of us that we actually won.”
The Nebraska Elite are one of two local teams that came home with first-place hardware from the two season-ending national tournaments. The Premier under-14 gold squad won the national division at the USA volleyball girls junior national championships in New Orleans.
The Elite were in the open division, the highest level of play in the competition. They went 10-1 against their 67-team age group. More than 2,100 squads competed at the 42nd annual event in Orlando, Florida.
In the finals, the Elite toppled a squad from Chicago Fusion, a program with more than 100 squads. Elite lost the first set 25-22 but came back and won the next two 25-22 and 15-12.
They went 7-1 in three-set matches at the event.
“We never felt like we were going to lose,” coach Tony Carrow said. “All week long we’d gone three, so it was only fitting this would go three.”
Carrow said his team served and hit well and played great defense, but it was a surprise change in clothing that gave the Elite an unexpected lift on their title run.
The girls decided to surprise their coaches by coming out for the third day of competition in purple shorts instead of their usual black. They were a bit apprehensive about Carrow’s reaction, but he was amused.
They went 3-0 that day, including a victory over the top seed that set the tone for the rest of the tournament. Purple might be a permanent part of their uniform.
“It comes back to just believing in yourself. We had to keep it light,” Carrow said. “When they brought out the purple spandex, that got us all laughing.”
They made a bet with assistant Kate Elman that if they made the final, she had to wear purple, too, which the setter from Creighton did. That kept the team loose in the championship.
That was important because the title match was on ESPN3 and was shown on a huge screen above the court. That was a bit nerve-racking at first for the girls.
The day ended with a big dogpile. It’s something that Carrow never tires of watching and plans to show again at the team’s season-ending party.
Sarah Swanson, a 6-foot-2 middle hitter from Elkhorn South, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. Swanson recorded huge kills throughout the tournament, including one with the score 11-11 in the third set of the title match.
“She basically dominated the division for four straight days,” Carrow said. “There wasn’t a middle hitter more effective than her both as a hitter and blocker.”
More than 40 schools, from the Missouri Valley Conference to Missouri in the SEC, would like Swanson to visit. Nearly every player on the roster has attracted interest.
Schomers, who was on the all-tournament team with Swanson and Brooke Heyne, already has committed to Missouri-Kansas City.
“It was a great event from the exposure standpoint,” Carrow said. “That’s really why we do this — to exchange their skill set for a college education. They all have that opportunity.”
It has been nine years since an area team won a national title in the open division. Carrow said he knew his team was capable, but it struggled some during the middle of the season because of injuries and illnesses. Still, Elite peaked at the right time, winning their third tournament, and it’s something he’ll never forget.
That’s why he, too, can understand why Nelson doesn’t want to take that medal off.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know how difficult it is,” he said. “I want to make sure I enjoy it.”
The Elite roster: Jordan Daniels, Millard West; Brooklyn Duren, Brooke Heyne, Jessica Schlautman, Allison Schomers, Omaha Skutt; Lily Heim, Omaha Marian; Kathleen Medill, Lincoln Pius X; Grace Nelson, Elkhorn; Madison Stearns, Millard South; Sarah Swanson, Elkhorn South. Coaches: Tony Carrow, Caitlyn Rueth, Kate Elman.
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