Last fall, veteran North Shore area coach and Milwaukee Volleyball Club director Brad Kuehl was looking to put together a low maintenance, high-talent 18-year-old boys team so the club could possibly do well in the USA Junior National Championships in Dallas this summer.
He found it in a mixture of Milwaukee area suburban players plus one willing adventurer from Kaukauna who came together, forged a great chemistry and had the backing of terrifically supportive parents.
Their odyssey ended with a spectacular third-place finish out of 74 teams in the USDA Club Level Nationals, June 29-July 2, with members Joe Lock of Shorewood (setter) and Zach Schmidt of Kaukauna (middle hitter) making the all-tournament squad.
'This team we put together last November,' Kuehl said, 'we put it together from parts of five other teams. They're good kids with good personalities. There were no attitudes, no egos. They just really jelled together.
'All the guys played every game unless they were getting some rest, so there were no worries about playing time. Everyone had a role to play.'
It took a little while to get there, said long-time Nicolet boys coach Kuehl, who has been with Nicolet as well as MVC for the last 13 years. He was helped out by Jon Nowak and Chandler North. Kuehl said the team began with 13 players, including two practice players who were working their way up the age group ranks and not old enough to compete in this tournament. Injury and personal reasons took two other players.
In the end, the team included Nick Plamann and Joe Clemens of Mequon; Zach Schmidt of Kaukauna; Steve Seaman of Muskego; Quinn Barkow and Scott MacGillis of Wauwatosa; Joe Lock of Shorewood; Steven Roenitz of Whitefish Bay; Phil Weisbecker of Germantown; and Steven Mulvey of New Berlin (Pius XI).
Many of these players were coming off successful WIAA prep seasons that ended in early November and dovetailed right into the MVC campaign.
'Our season sort of runs from December to July,' Kuehl said. 'It's a heavy schedule from December to February and then picks up again in June. These kids had something like 27 tournament days from December through July.'
There are two levels of youth level volleyball, and MVC sponsors both, Kuehl added.
There is an open division for the very highest level players, and then there is the club division. To get to events like nationals, open division teams have to qualify at a variety of tournaments while the club teams just have to be willing to put in the time, the effort and pay the entry fees and lodging and travel expenses.
Kuehl could not say enough about the support level of the parents, both financially and emotionally for MVC 18 squad.
'This was something they wanted to provide to their kids,' he said.
All told, MVC sent nine open and club teams of various age levels to the nationals in Dallas. The area coaching fraternity was well-represented as Phil Lambe of Mequon (Homestead boys coach) led the 15-year-old open team to third, while Germantown coach Brian Rushmer led the 14-year-old open team to an 11th-place finish, the highest finish for any team outside of southern California.
Kuehl explained the difference between open and club competition.
'The top 15 or 20 club teams could compete very well with the bottom tier of teams in the open division,' he said. 'There isn't much difference between the top of the club and the bottom of the open division, but from the top of the open division to the bottom of the club is a very wide gap (in terms of competition).'
The Milwaukee area was also represented by the Milwaukee Sting volleyball program. He said its 18-year-old open team competed very well at this event.
As did the MVC 18 Club team. They played regional tune-up events in Chicago and Anaheim (California) earlier in the year to ready themselves for the nationals that were held at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center in Dallas, June 29-July 2. They wound up playing 11 matches over four days, winning its day one pool, finishing second in day two pool play and winning day three pool events.
Kuehl said the team's serving carried it a long way.
'We were one of the best serving teams in the country,' he said. 'We could flat-out serve the crap out of the ball. We had several good jump servers and others who could do a good, hard float serve ... we also had this great ability to battle. Our chemistry really brought us through.'
He said the strength and stamina of Lock at setter was key. 'Easily the strongest kid on the team,' Kuehl said.
Those pool play efforts put MVC in the championship round on July 2, where they routed the Bayou Boys out of New Orleans (25-6, 25-20) but then fell to the eventual champions, the OCVC 18s out of Southern California (25-27, 25-16, 15-9).
'We played great in one game, not so well in the other and in the final, they (OCVC) just played amazing defense,' Kuehl said. 'We were a little exhausted by the end, but the kids had a blast. These kids just love competing.'
One of the really nice stories coming out of the event was that of Schmidt. Kuehl said that when a player quit last fall, he put out word that the team could really use another middle. Schmidt, who was without a club team following the prep season, responded despite the 90-minute drive.
'He and his parents would do the commute,' Kuehl said. 'He would come down once a week for practice and then on weekends for tournaments. He worked well with the rest of the team, and he loved it. He's going to go play college volleyball so it worked out well for him.'
Overall, the MVC had a good week, Kuehl said.
'We had a very impressive bunch of groups,' he said. 'We did well top to bottom.'