Local volleyball players win national title

The 18U Valley Volleyball Academy won the national championship in Baltimore last month. The team included local players including Devyn Castaneda and Audrey Hyde from Redwood and Avery Barber, Haven Rich and Jayla Iversen from Exeter.

The 18U Valley Volleyball Academy wins the USA Volleyball National Championship in Baltimore; local players from Redwood and Exeter represent Tulare County on the team

BALTIMORE – In late April, the 18U Valley Volleyball Academy traveled to Baltimore, Maryland to compete in the USA Volleyball National Championship. With local players from Redwood and Exeter on the team, the club looked to compete against some of the best high school volleyball players from across the country. 

Some of the local players on the team include Devyn Castaneda and Audrey Hyde from Redwood and Jayla Iversen, Haven Rich and Avery Barber from Exeter. Thanks to their help, the Volleyball Academy went on a run in Baltimore to win the national championship. After playing volleyball for so many years, the players were excited to demonstrate what they were capable of on a national stage.

“It was just so surreal because we’ve been playing volleyball for eight to 10 years,” Barber said. “We’ve been through so many championship games and playoffs and hard losses for so many years, so this was so surreal and we were all so very emotional.”

“When we won the national championship, I let everyone know because I was so proud of our team,” Castaneda said.

These Redwood and Exeter players won the national championship with other players from the Central Valley, including Karina Rodriguez from Clovis, Summer Alberta from Yosemite, Morgan Bigham from Sanger, Makayla Smith from Hoover, Frisha Divinagracia from Clovis East, Paige Winter from Clovis West and Cascade Norton. As they competed at nationals, Hyde and her teammates were excited to demonstrate what the Central Valley had to offer. 

“It feels special because volleyball isn’t as huge in the Valley as it is down south or in other states,” Hyde said. “No one knew our club so it felt really good to be the first to make us known.”

“To put our club name on the map was really special,” Barber said. “It was just really empowering knowing even though we’re from a small, not very known place, we can compete at a high level.”

The national championship paid off years of hard work as this group of girls joined the Volleyball Academy in the 2021-2022 season. Around 200 girls tried out for the team, so these players showed they were the best of the best in the Central Valley by making the team. 

With the club this spring, the volleyball players were led by head coach Kelly Winter and assistant coach Matt Oliveira. Winter is an assistant coach at Fresno Pacific with head coaching experience at the school. She was also an excellent player for the Sunbirds during her collegiate career. 

Oliveira is an assistant coach for Fresno State volleyball as the team’s technical coordinator where he assists in the breakdown of opponents and scouting reports. With their experience and expertise that they brought to the table, the local volleyball players learned a lot from them.

“I really enjoyed working with them. Especially coach Kelly, she has a great way of keeping things positive,” Rich said. “Knowing that she believes in us really sets the tone and helps us believe in each other, I think that was really cool to see this season.”

“I’ve noticed that some of my favorite coaches have been teachers, and Kelly and Matt are definitely some of my favorite coaches,” Hyde said.

Their coaching and the performance of the club’s players led to a run this spring. In a tournament in Sacramento this past March, the Volleyball Academy had a strong showing going 9-0 to win their division in the tournament. With that title, the Volleyball Academy clinched a spot in the national championship and showed that they were ready to compete. 

“That was when we realized that we were better than just good,” Castaneda said.

“That just gave our team a whole lot of confidence going into tournaments after,” Rich said. “We now know we can compete at this level and we can win these things.”

In their tournament in Baltimore, the Volleyball Academy remained confident through adversity. After sweeping pool play, the Volleyball Academy had to face a school from Atlanta, Georgia in a crossover game. The winner of that would go onto the final four and the loser had to compete in the next four out. 

The Volleyball Academy stumbled in the first set, but gathered themselves to win the next two sets to book their tickets to the tournament’s final four.

“We were down and just got crushed. We weren’t playing good volleyball and we kind of lost our spirit,” Barber said. “But we came back, fought back and killed them in the second set and handled them in the third set.”

In the semifinal, the Volleyball Academy faced a team from Texas. The teams split the first two sets and the Volleyball Academy pulled through to win the third to advance to the title match. In the championship match, Volleyball Academy faced a physically-imposing team from Texas. But the Volleyball Academy proved themselves with a strong start to win the first set.

“We just came out hard right away, super quick, ran some great plays and had some amazing defense and serve-receives,” Barber said. “The other team realized that we can play and we kind of got in their heads.”

The Texas team won the second set and took a 7-1 lead to start the third, but the Volleyball Academy rallied to win the third to win the national championship. Over the years, these players have fallen short in Central Valley and State championships, so winning this national title was a satisfying way to end their high school careers.

“Being at nationals with all these girls and working so hard to get there, it was just unreal,” Rich said. “There were so many emotions going into that and I’m so glad I got to experience it with all of those girls.”

During their time in Baltimore, the Valley Volleyball Academy grew closer together as they spent much time together off the court. Before their first match, the tournament hosted a prom for all the volleyball players. Then after they won the national title, the Valley Volleyball Academy visited Washington D.C. 

“It’s just so fun to be around those girls and be with them,” Rich said about her time with the team. “I love all of them.”

With their high school careers over, these players will next compete in college volleyball. Iversen is undecided while Rich will head to Montana State, Barber to California Baptist University, Hyde to Westmont University and Castaneda to Fresno Pacific to continue working with Winter.

Now with their experience working with 18U Valley Volleyball Academy and competing with some of the best volleyball players in the country, these players believe they are more prepared for the high level of play at the next level.

“We got that taste of what it actually feels like to be in a college experience,” Castaneda said. 

“We had to keep pushing and be resilient throughout the weekend and that’s something I think we could bring to our colleges next year,” Hyde said. “We competed at a higher level for nationals and now we’re definitely going to have to compete at a higher level for college.”

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