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Zach Hacker: Volleyball tournament was an eye-opener

Volleyball has always been a pretty big deal in my family.

My cousin, Jeff Nelson, has been a head coach at the Division I college level for more than 20 years, making stops at Texas Tech, the University of San Francisco and, currently, the University of New Mexico.

It has also been the sport my mom has been most passionate about for as long as I can remember. She played in rec leagues until just a few years ago. (I won’t say her age when she stopped playing just in case she reads this.)

I bring this up because it was my family’s volleyball background the led me to a pretty neat experience last weekend. Two of my cousins (second cousins, actually) from Phoenix were playing in the 2014 USA Volleyball Girls’ National Championships at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

I can honestly say I’ve never been at that huge of a tournament. There were 48 courts set up with games taking place on all of them throughout the day from June 24-July 3. Of those, 47 hosted games for roughly 1,230 teams of girls ages 12-18 from all over the country. There was one court set up in the center of the arena with stadium seating that featured scrimmages for the USA Volleyball College National Team. It’s estimated the event draws more than 9,500 players and 20,000 spectators annually.

I bring this up because seeing that much talent in one building — the best of the best that the U.S. has to offer — truly makes a person realize how good someone has to be to reach that “elite” level.

According to the National Federation of High School Associations, in the 2012-13 school year — the last year on which data is available on their website — there were 420,208 girls playing high school volleyball nationwide. If numbers were similar last season, about 2 percent of the players in the country were good enough to play on a team at the national tournament.

On my cousins’ 18-year-old team, Club One, all six of the starters plan to play volleyball at Division I schools. That, however, was definitely the exception rather than the rule. In two of the three games I watched on Saturday, Club One dominated teams from Colorado and Mississippi before getting a little bit more of a challenge from a Pennsylvania squad, but they still won in two sets. Their team ended up taking fifth place despite the fact that “nobody played well on Monday,” as my cousin put it.

There was one girl in particular on their team, an outside hitter who stood about 6-5, who was noticeable even among the deep pool of talent. When she was set up properly, there was no returning her spikes and to be honest, I wouldn’t have wanted to step in front of one. According to Nelson, who was there recruiting, she was being pursued by every school except one in Pac-12 Conference —a powerhouse in Division I volleyball — before selecting Washington State.

The thing that stuck out most in that conversation to me, however, was the “except one.” I’ve seen quite a few college volleyball games in my day, and everyone at that level can really hit. That said, most of their passes and sets are nearly perfect. I can’t help but think this girl will be a monster at the college level. The fact that even she, who stood out of the top 2 percent of the players in country, wasn’t even good enough to be recruited by one of the schools in the Pac-12 while all the others were pursuing her, was pretty eye-opening.

It’s the same with all sports. No matter how good someone is at the high school level, there has to be something truly special that makes them part of the elite class that can play even at the Division I college level; let alone professionally.

Zach Hacker

Zach is the Daily Globe sports reporter. He has previously been a sports editor at both the Waseca County News in Waseca, Minn., and The Emporia Gazette in Emporia, Kansas. He is originally from New Richland, Minn., and now lives in Worthington with his dog; a beagle-corgi mix named Homer. In his spare time he enjoys spending time with family and friends, pontooning on St. Olaf Lake and watching professional and collegiate sports.

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