Naomi Hickman walked back to the service line and prepared for delivery.
With her fingertips, she held the ability to end the USAV 18 Open championship match on her own accord and secure the gold medal for her KC Power 18-1 teammates.
How many times did she dream of this moment in recent years?
“Umm, that’s not really my mindset,” Hickman said, “but just practicing serving a lot to get better.”
There was not a better moment or time, nor a bigger stage for Hickman to unleash the best serve of her life so far.
Speaking of life, her hard float took on one of its own. Whistling through the air and arching away from the defender, the serve wasn’t all that far from appearing like it was heading out of bounds.
It might have been why the TAV 18 Black passer was just a bit late to get there, realizing the serve was diving down near the sideline of the imaginary 12-foot line and not out, but it was too late. The ball bounced off the diving passer’s hands and toward the referee’s scorer’s table and out of play.
“That’s ‘Nay,’” said KC Power setter Madison Lilley. “She kind of pulls things out like that. She’s such a dynamic player, but she’s such a middle you wouldn’t think it at all.”
That was it.
Just like that, one life-remembering ace made KC Power’s gold-medal march official after outlasting TAV in three, 25-23, 22-25, 16-14, ending three years of heartbreak and heartache experienced in its quest of medaling at Junior Nationals and ending TAV’s chance of a third consecutive top-podium finish in the process.
Three Things From the 18 Open Final
We’ll have much more from 18 Open, for now though we break down the three-set thriller between KC Power and TAV.
1. No better storyline possible. Alright, if an unheralded club made a run to the gold medal, that would have been special too. In terms of a two-sided coin though, it’s hard to imagine a better one playing out than the meeting between TAV and KC Power. TAV moved up to PVB’s No. 1 team in the nation in our February National Rankings ahead of the Triple Crown Sports Pre-Season NIT in Salt Lake City. This was the two-time defending age group champion, having captured gold medals in both 16 and 17 Open the past two years.
However, a variety of reasons led to TAV underperforming and was part of an up-and-down season that left Coach John Sample knowing he had the best team with one of the biggest ifs … if they played like it. He for one was not always sure what he was going to get. For example, earlier this month at the JVA World Challenge in Louisville, TAV beat then-No. 1 Munciana 18 Samurai in three in the opening round of gold bracket play. Yet, TAV was taken apart handily by K2 18 Adidas in the next round in a total juxtaposition.
Anything of the sort over the weekend in Dallas was going to make for a miserable time. And it started off just like that as TAV was upset by Tstreet in straight sets.
“That first match we were not mentally ready to play,” Sample said. “As soon as that was over and we started the second one, the girls started saying they needed to play like we’ve been practicing. Everyone jumped on it and everyone was participating the whole time. It was a total team effort.”
During the rematch against Tstreet in the semifinals, the bench players let each other know to celebrate loud on crucial points, to get behind the girls on the court. And it paid off by getting a shot at KC Power in the final and the chance to bring home a third consecutive gold trophy.
For KC Power, we already highlighted what it meant for them to be in the final after missing out on medaling three straight times.
“It’s unbelievable,” KC Power coach Mike Dauernheim said. “These girls have experienced losing in the first round and for them to get over the hump and push all the way through for the win in the final match is crazy. It’s a testament to how good they are. They stuck with each other. They had some dark moments, but stuck with each other. It was great. We got key plays when we needed them. We got blocks when we needed to. We got kills when we needed to. We got digs when we needed to.”
And of course, aces when they needed to.
2. Streaks and runs. They dominated the final match, as both sides kept going back-and-forth and the lead kept changing hands throughout the contest. It made for an intense atmosphere, as you could never get a handle on who could maintain their flow.
“Yeah, yeah, there were a bunch of momentum shifts,” Lilley said. “Going into the third, we knew they had the momentum from the second set. We went up 4-1 and then we were down two, then up two, then it was tied at 14. We just kept playing hard to try and get through it.”
KC Power fell behind 9-6 in the final set.
Trailed 10-9. Was tied at 10. Trailed 11-10. Led 12-11 and 13-12 and 14-13, but was tied at 12, 13 and 14 all.
The second set had its streaks. KC Power was in front 13-12, trailed 16-15, led 17-16, trailed 20-17 and was tied at 20. TAV used a 4-0 run to go up 24-20.
KC Power held a 14-11 margin in Game 1, then trailed 17-14 and was tied at 18 before leading 21-18. Power gave up a 3-0 spurt and it was 21 all.
It was hard to figure out who was in control.
“It was a great match,” Sample said. “The sets couldn’t have been any closer. Anybody could’ve won. We made a couple of errors toward the end. Their middles were tough for us to stop. It was a really competitive match. The weekend was phenomenal. It hurts to get second but we have to remember it’s a great weekend for all the kids.”
3. The details. You know the backdrop and that the match was streaky, here’s the nitty-gritty of how it played out.
— Set 1
Lilley’s dump stakes KC Power to a 14-11 cushion. A pair of Payton Schwantz winners, a Kylee McLaughlin ace and a Madison Goings kill put the lead in TAV’s hands at 17-14. Megan Kuper struck twice from the service line, Megan Cooney once from the left and Virginia Berg and Hickman combined on a block to bring KC Power back and lead 21-18.
Allison White’s ace pulled TAV even at 21, but Callie Schwarzenbach connected out of the middle and Power was in front 23-22. After a missed serve, the teams were locked at 23.
Schwarzenbach’s slide brought up set point at 24-23. That’s when Berg’s ace sealed the set for Power.
— Set 2
It was going similar to Game 1, with KC Power losing the lead midway through and trailing 16-15 after consecutive kills by Goings and Schwantz. Cooney’ right-side tip shot capped a 3-0 run that pulled Power even at 20. But TAV answered with a 4-0 spurt that featured Paige Anderson putting down an overpass and Samantha Sanders scoring on a tip for a 24-20 advantage. Kills from Hickman and Berg closed the gap to 24-22, but Sanders’ big smack down sealed it for TAV on the next play.
— Set 3
Schwantz went off the block for the first point of the set, but Power scored the next four, with Kuper producing a kill in that time. Sample called timeout and it was a good one. TAV won five straight out of the break, as White and Goings scored. Goings went off the block from the right side followed by Sanders going down the line from the left side and TAV held an 8-5 margin at the side switch. Hickman and Goings traded kills and it was 9-6. Schwarzenbach’s quick off the block and Cooney’s ace helped make up a 3-0 run and tie the score at 9. The next four points were great volleyball, all first-ball side outs as Sanders and Scwantz scored for TAV and Berg and Schwarzenbach for Power. The side out streak broke when Kuper tooled a double-block for a 12-11 Power lead. Lilley banged home an overpass for 13-12, but Schwantz answered for 13 all. Cooney connected cross court after a short rally and Power held match point at 14-13. Sanders wasted no time, scoring on the first ball for 14 all. Hickman answered right back with a first-ball side out for 15-14 and then headed to the service line.
We know how that turned out.
“Obviously, there was a lot of pressure but I was confident going back,” Hickman said. “Maybe I wasn’t trying to be quite as aggressive as that, but I definitely wanted a good serve to put pressure on them. I think it’s incredible. For this team to get fifth three times, this definitely makes up for it.”