By RICHIE HALL
For four days in Florida, the Munciana 12O Peppers volleyball team was unstoppable.
The Peppers played in the 49th AAU National Junior Tournament two weeks ago in Orlando. Playing in the open division, which features the highest level of competition, the Peppers won the national championship, going 12-0 over the four-day event.
“It’s very difficult not to lose at all during championship week,” said Kylie Johnson, head coach of the Peppers. “Not being complacent, not letting nerves get in the way. It’s just very hard to do.”
Four girls from Hamilton County were on the team and each had a big part to play. Local girls include three from Westfield – Eva Clevenger, Brooke Neale and Eden Wise – and Haili Winkle from Fishers. The Westfield girls are entering seventh grade, while Winkle will be entering eighth grade.
The Peppers easily won all of their games on the first day of the tournament. On the second day, the team found themselves trailing 14-8 in the third set against an opponent. Since all Nationals matches were best-of-three sets, that meant the Peppers were left with multiple match points.
But instead, the Peppers came back to win. Amelia Howell served for the team as they came back at 14-14, and eventually the Peppers won the third set 18-16 and the match.
Amelia is the daughter of Peppers assistant coach Keri Howell.
“I didn’t realize how confident she was in her serve,” Keri Howell said. “I have four daughters who play volleyball. What I learned about her that day was that she wanted to be part of the big moment. She wasn’t afraid, she didn’t want to back down.
Amelia’s aggressive serve was paired with Kyra Murry’s stellar front-row play.
“She had at least two kills and a big block,” Keri Howell said. “Amelia’s serve pressure created the overpasses, and Kyra was able to have flawless attacks and blocks that kept us scoring points, so it was a great team effort.”
The Peppers kept their unbeaten record intact on day three of the tournament, winning two of their three matches in straight sets to move to 9-0. That would move them into the championship bracket,
“You just try to take it day to day,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to look too far, because you really have to focus on the opponent at hand. In the situation of the national championships, we really focused on every point, every game. Every day we just started again But you could feel the momentum building after Day 3, when we were still undefeated.
This momentum continued until the fourth and final day of the tournament. The Peppers swept their three games in straight sets. That included a straight-set victory in the title match against A5 of Atlanta, Georgia, 25-16, 25-22.
The Peppers led early in the first set at 10-7, then extended their lead to 25-13 before winning the set. A5 took an 8-3 lead in the second set, but the Peppers came back and then took a 21-18 lead. A5 pushed back to level the score at 21-21, but the Peppers rallied again, winning four of the next five points in front of a large crowd of Munciana fans.
They were just relentless in their pursuit of their goal,” Johnson said. “They weren’t going to lose no matter what they had to do to win. Just ultimate competitors. If we were down, they didn’t get nervous. Instead, Johnson said the players “just keep their heads down and keep closing the gap and eventually take the lead.”
It was a memorable tournament for the Peppers, and the long drives were certainly worth it for the Hamilton County girls as they drove back and forth from their home in Muncie to practice with the team. The four girls carpooled together and, as a result, quickly became friends.
Johnson and Howell had something to say about each of the four local girls and their contributions to the team.
Brooke Neale was named All-American at the end of the tournament. She’s the Peppers’ libero, so she’s spent most of her time in the backyard.
“She did an amazing job,” Howell said. “It was her second year on the Peppers team, so she knew the expectations. She knew what was going to be asked of her and she did it. She did parts that most 12-year-olds wouldn’t even think of. not to play.
“She’s only leaving the court for a very short time,” Johnson said. “She was so tenacious in defense. There were no balls that were going to land on our pitch if she had anything to do with it.
Meanwhile, it was Eva Clevenger’s first year at Munciana, and she made a big impression from the start.
“Eva absolutely shone on Day 3,” Johnson said. “If not for the impact of his strike on Day 3, it would have been a different story.”
“She was an outside hitter for us at nationals, and she really stepped up and started to really hit the ball,” Howell said. “We’ve been waiting for her to do this all year and she’s really come through at the Nationals which has been extremely helpful.”
Haili Winkle was fearless for the Peppers in their tournament. Johnson said Winkle was “the go-to” for the team during the four-day event.
“She’s never been disappointed and she’s too small,” Johnson said. “She was up against midfielders who are 5-9, 5-10 and she is maybe 5-4, 5-5. And she would beat them because she’s so quick and has such a quick arm. She showed no fear at net.
“She was a must, if we needed a point,” Howell said. “She was also a very good waitress. She managed to get several aces in the final match thanks to her serve.
Howell said serving and passing are key to winning at any level of volleyball, “but at the 12-year-old level it’s just vital to be able to serve a difficult ball” and then also be calm and relaxed when he’s just received service, “because it can be kind of ever-wracking,” Howell said.
Speaking of service, Eden Wise was very good at it.
“She had amazing serve,” Howell said. “His serve created a lot of aces and caused other teams to be a bit out of the system. You wouldn’t expect her to have such aggressive and hard serve.
“She was our designated server,” Johnson said. “She’s just tough as nails behind the service line. And she would serve us big points. She wouldn’t get nervous or shaken. She would just come in and do her job.
The Peppers had been training for months and they finally achieved their goal two weeks ago.
“They want to be there, they want to work hard and they want to put in the time because they know they are one of the best teams in the country, and if they can put in the effort, they can be successful at the national tournament. “said Howell.
The Peppers can now say they made it through the national tournament, with a banner and a trophy to prove it.