DISCLAIMER: I was at neither Far East volleyball tournament, though many an observer game me plenty of insight into what took place. Thus, I’ll give it a go from afar:
Well, now Liz Thornton has done something her older sisters, Catherine and Gwendolyn, have not.
Four times, the American School In Japan Mustangs have won Far East Girls Division I Volleyball Tournament titles in the last six years, including the last two with Thornton earning Most Valuable Player honors.
That’s one more than each of her sisters, each outstanding athletes in their own right, won during those championship years of 2006 and 2008.
Teaming with her fellow All-Far East selections, senior setter Baileigh Gibson and Mia Weinland, the Mustangs stumbled once, losing to their chief rival Nile C. Kinnick on Nov. 6 in division play, then dropping a set to Kinnick en route to their second straight finals victory 25-17, 21-25, 25-20, 25-20 at Guam High School.
It’s that division-play loss, one could surmise, on which the entire D-I tournament cut on a dime and gave back nine cents change.
“I hope we didn’t awaken a giant,” Red Devils coach Al Garrido said after that victory.
That, most would say, is precisely what happened. And once again demonstrated that one should never take full stock in what occurs during pool or division play; it almost never translates to the playoffs, as this tournament showed.
After losing that day and taking the No. 2 seed into single-elimination play, bet the house that the Mustangs vowed, as one, that they would not lose another match the rest of the way.
And especially so, after longtime ASIJ coach Gail Lanier was struck in the eye by an errant ball during warm-ups prior to the championship match and had to be hospitalized. Thornton later said the team vowed to win the final for coach.
I haven’t seen Thornton’s father, Tim, coach anything since his days at Canadian Academy of Kobe in the 1990s. But coach he did, to what extend that the players already knew what they had to do, how to execute and play together and did exactly that.
Get better soon, Gail. And come home and celebrate that championship!
That makes seven banners for the Mustangs.
That loud, appreciative ovation for Kinnick at the end of that final signaled not just the end of the great four-year run, spearheaded by the likes of departing setter Jerimae Capuyan and hitter Mashiya McKinney, but a Red Devils team that really didn’t have a middle blocker, had to make many a personnel adjustment as the season went along, but still made the final. Great capper for a team that’s gone 106-3 in the last four regular seasons, with six straight DODDS Japan titles and at least a share of three of the last four Kanto Plain crowns.
Amazing how the Kanto Plain has been so dominant in Far East since Christian Academy Japan and American School In Japan began playing gnip-gnop with the title since 2005. ASIJ, Kinnick, eventual bronze medalist Seisen International and fourth-place CAJ each won their respective pools on Monday, created the Kanto pool for division play on Tuesday and finished in exactly that order in the Final Four.
Quite a change from 1989-2004, when Guam ruled the roost, winning the title 11 times, led by Academy of Our Lady of Guam, whose Pacific record of seven titles was matched on Nov. 10 by ASIJ.
Almost always when a longtime setter leaves, the question arises: How to replace the irreplaceable?
Lanier and the Mustangs face that challenge when Gibson, arguably the Mustangs’ finest setter since Lisa Schroder of the 1986-87 title teams, graduates come June. No doubt, the Mustangs will audition to find the next best pair of hands for the task. But if anybody can, I know it’s Lanier.
And Thornton will return as well. She’ll be a senior next year, after which a good 15 or so coaches throughout the Pacific not associated with ASIJ will breathe a huge sigh of relief. At least until the next athletically gifted family arrives at Chofu.
That was the question facing Morrison Academy entering the current season: Who could replace All-Far East setter Shana Heading, who along with tournament MVP Lauren Van Singel created their own version of Gibson to Thornton for the kill?
No problem. Coach Nancy Wittgow instead assembled what many termed a team better than the sum of its individual parts, led by holdovers Karen Yates, who earned tournament MVP honors, and Ilona Heiskanen. They vanquished an exhausted tournament host and two-time runner-up Daegu High 25-6, 25-15, 25-11 in the finals on Nov. 9 at Camp Walker’s Kelly Fitness & Sports Center in Daegu.
That’s two straight titles for the Mustangs, after a frustrating four-year run of runner-up finishes. Fourth straight year the two teams have met for the title. Two titles for each in that span.
Yet another demonstration, it was, of how important it is to remain in the championship bracket of a double-elimination tournament for as long as you can hold on for dear life. Get relegated to the knockout bracket and the road to hoe is a very, very long one.
Not only had Daegu had to win twice earlier on Nov. 9 just to reach the championship, including a grueling five-setter against International School of the Sacred Heart, they had to beat Morrison twice to win the title. I’d strongly bet the ISSH match was the one that broke the Warriors’ backs. Also shows what a great job James Griffiths has done with the Symbas.
One silver lining in the cloud permeating the Warriors’ runner-up finish … their hitting combination of Lari Robertson and Kaitlyn Nott and setter Sarah Wright should all be back as seniors. Coaching continuity won’t be a problem; Joanna Wyche should return, along with her daughters Rachel and Rheagan as part of the returning cast.
I’m guessing Daegu’s less-than-championship performance might have been a case of what I call “reverse KAIAC syndrome.” Let me illuminate:
In years that Osan American and Daegu High each had sub-par performances in the Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference’s Five-Cities Division tournament, they would approach the Far East D-II tournament with a belly full of fire and win the whole thing. Daegu in 2005, 2009 and 2010 and Osan in 2007 and 2008.
Late last month, Daegu won the KAIAC tournament and perhaps played their best volleyball of the season, coach Wyche said. That sent up a red flag in my head: Could it be the opposite may be true this time around? The results speak for themselves. Had Daegu posted a KAIAC-like performance at Far East, who knows what the result would have been?