By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- It might not be her first choice, but Ashley Humphrey isn't too down about the consolation prize she and her Potomac Elite AAU volleyball club teammates earned this season.
Led by James Wood volleyball coach Jill Lester, Humphrey and most of her teammates earned a trip to the USA Volleyball Junior Nationals in Atlanta last year by winning Chesapeake Region Volleyball Association tournament championship as a 14U squad. They were aiming to do the same as a 15U team this year and make the trip back to nationals in Columbus, Ohio, but a loss in the regional semifinals knocked them out.
"When we got knocked out of the regional tournament, I said, 'Well girls, we're going to Disney World,'" Lester said. "Even though there was definitely some frustration to lose in the regional semifinals, they also had something new to look forward to because there are nine players on the team, and eight of them have never been to this tournament before."
On June 18, Humphrey and her teammates head south to play in the 39th AAU Girls' Junior National Volleyball Championships in Orlando, Fla., where they'll compete against approximately 150 teams from around the United States and Canada.
"We've been looking forward to this the whole season," said Humphrey, who plays for Millbrook during the school season. "It's been really exciting and it's been our goal to get there."
Getting there has plenty of rewards, and not all of them involve sandy beaches or the Magic Kingdom. The AAU tournament is a magnet for college coaches, giving Humphrey and her teammates national exposure against stiff competition.
"There are a lot of teams," said Potomac Elite director Sarah Smith, who is also the head volleyball coach at Shepherd University. "It's very intense, as to which club people want to play for. The whole goal of Potomac Elite is to provide an opportunity to play higher-level volleyball with the potential to be recruited and go to college without having to drive into the bigger metropolitan areas.
"At AAU nationals last year, they had over 250 coaches. USAV nationals had over 300 coaches [there] last year."
Practice began in early January, twice a week, with tournaments falling on weekends. The practice schedule has increased to three times a week during the summer.
"Most kids are at the pool right now and these girls are practicing for a national tournament," Lester said, "so there's something to be said about their work ethic and character."
James Wood's Savannah Yost, a defensive specialist for Potomac Elite, said all the hard work is worth it for the opportunity to play in Orlando.
"We were hoping to make it to nationals through regionals, but since we didn't this is still really big for us," Yost said. "It's kind of a combination -- we're excited to go to Florida and everything, but it's about the competition. We're excited about playing."
Potomac Elite, which fields multiple age-division squads, draws players from the tri-state area of Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. Lester's squad is mostly made up of Virginia players. Middle hitter Taylor Williams from Boonsboro, Md., is the exception -- she joined the team just a few weeks ago as a replacement for another middle hitter who couldn't make the trip.
"I'm real excited because I've never been to Florida for a tournament before," Williams said. "I expect it to be pretty tough because there's a lot of teams going there. It's not going to be easy, but we'll see."
Pool play for the four-day tournament begins on June 19. Potomac Elite is guaranteed seven matches to show college coaches what they can do, and hopefully compete for the championship.
Win or lose, Lester is confident her team will show up to play hard in Florida.
"They are an incredibly talented group of athletes," Lester said. "They're so fun to work with. They're very energetic, and they're focused and driven."