Sam Burgio of Eden helped her NFVB 15-1 become the first travel club team from New York State to win a national title. Contributed photo.
There is a drill that Stephen Pierce does with his Niagara Frontier Volleyball 15-1 girls team that prepares it for tough game situations. And boy did the team need it last weekend at nationals.
The NFVB 15-1s won the Girls Junior National Championship, 23-25, 25-19, 15-3, over a team from Northern Kentucky that won the national title last year. The tournament took place from June 25-28 in Minneapolis.
“One thing we did focus on in very tight games…we run a drill on the last six points or whatever where we’re starting the score at 18-18 or 18-20, so the kids have to stay focused and put the other team away,” said Stephen Pierce, head coach of the NFVB 15-1s and the Eden girls volleyball team. “We just reminded them that we’ve been in that situation 100 times during the season and that seemed to help them.”
Setter Meghan Neelon of Clarence was named Tournament MVP, leading the 15-1s to a perfect 11-0 record during the four-day tournament.
Sam Burgio, who just finished her freshman year at Eden, was joined on the All-Tournament team with Grand Island’s Lindsay Proctor.
The victory marked the first time a team from New York State has even played in the gold medal game, nevertheless win one.
“We were put on the center court with a ton of people watching us and our coach told us not to let it get to your head, but it was crazy to see all of the cameras and they announced everything,” said Burgio, who has won three state titles at Eden. “It was so much more fun than states because everyone was watching you.”
Burgio and her teammates fell in the first set of the championship game.
“We were a little tentative and we weren’t going for all of the balls that we should’ve went for, but in the second game we started to realize that we were just as good as that team and if we play the way we’ve been playing all tournament, we could win,” Burgio said. “We fought as hard as we could and we did everything we could and played as a team and started hitting balls harder. Our serves got better and we played with great confidence in the next two games.”
The 15-1s dropped the first set of two or three games throughout the tournament, responding positively to each incident — especially in the title game, where they took the second set by six points and ending the third before it even began.
“I don’t know what really happened,” said Pierce, who coaches the team with Angela McGinnis and Kathy Neelon. “They kind of broke down and we kept the pressure on. We quickly opened up 5-0, then it got to 8-2, then we just rolled.”
“Our serves were phenomenal,” Burgio added. “Our setter, Meghan Neelon, we were really clicking and she started getting me some great sets and helped me be able to put it away. Our libero, Lindsay Proctor, she started getting balls up and played the best volleyball. But our serving was great. We were acing them and doing amazing.”
NFVB 15-1 was ranked 23rd out of 48 teams when pool play began on the first day. Teams were seeded into eight pools of six teams and the 15-1s started as a third seed. They were able to win the pool and advance to pools of three teams, with the top two teams advancing.
The remaining teams would play whoever was left from the lasting pools to play for one of the final eight spots, creating a playoff bracket for the gold medal.
Pierce’s 15-1 team in 2009 was the only other team to medal, garnering a bronze with a team that was almost completely filled with future Division I volleyball players.
Burgio was on the team that went to nationals last year, but thought this year’s team was capable of something special.
“Last year we weren’t as much of a team as we are this year,” Burgio said. “We didn’t end up as well as we had wanted to. This year we worked really well together and we got some new players that were really big additions to our team and they helped us.”
Pierce has always been excited about Burgio’s future on his high school team, but now that she has seen the best players in her age group in the country, he is extremely intrigued to see how she progresses.
“The exposure to that level and to see what level you can reach to play at is really inspiring. This is what it takes to be a top athlete,” said Pierce. “If you’re never exposed then you can’t really see it. So it’s good to see her exposed to that.”
Other locals, McKyla Brooks of Frontier, Kailey and Meghan Ballou and Bree Tutuska from Eden and Taylor Hite of Hamburg played for the NFVB 16-1 and 17-1 teams at nationals.
NFVB 17-1 placed 13th out of 48 teams.
Other members of the NFVB 15-1 national championship team include Jessica Kranz, Karley King, Caitlyn Meyer, Julie Milbrand, Alexis Novak, Ellen Paddock and Julia Panepinto.