Terry Bernal/Daily Journal
Encore 18’s Amelia Tupou sets for middle blocker Sarah Savoca, left, at Power League 3 in Daly City. Tupou recently committed to play at Cal Baptist.
There was perhaps no more excited a player at Saturday’s Power League than Amelia Tupou.
The Carlmont senior took to the floor Saturday at Daly City’s Serramonte Del Rey as part of the one-day girls’ volleyball Power League 3. Tupou plays for Encore Navy 18-1, a Redwood City-based club team, one of 12 teams on Saturday’s bill.
While Encore didn’t medal, or even finish in the top five for that matter, Tupou was upbeat because the All-Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division setter recently committed to Cal Baptist on a volleyball scholarship.
“It means so much,” Tupou said. “It makes all the years that I’ve put in and all the coaching I’ve had, it makes it all worth it.”
In terms of the volleyball timeline, Tupou — rhymes with “you go” — is a late sign. And with Thursday’s verbal commitment came a massive sigh of relief, after she recently began considering other college options while wondering if she wouldn’t fulfill her dream of playing at the next level.
The club volleyball scene is revered as something of a fast track to collegiate scouting. Many players commit as high school juniors, such as Menlo School’s big three Melissa Cairo, Morgan Dressel and Maddie Huber; all are seniors and will be playing in the Ivy League this fall.
Currently at the midway point of the club season, many high school juniors are geared up for the spotlight that comes with excelling on the club circuit. Vision 18 Gold, based out of Los Gatos and one of the premier club teams in the nation, has already qualified for Junior Nationals which begin July 29 in Minneapolis.
But many teams, including Encore, are still trying to punch a ticket to the World Series of junior club volleyball. And like Tupou last season, Encore’s Ali Vidali is counting on the team fairing well to increase her exposure to the collegiate scouting community.
Playing just over the hill from her hometown of Pacifica Saturday, Vidali is one of the premier outside hitters in the PAL who dominated throughout the 2013-14 high school season as a junior at Terra Nova. Vidali earned Ocean Division co-MVP honors after leading Terra Nova to its first win in a Central Coast Section match since 1983.
Yet Vidali is still without a serious college offer. She has gauged interest from UC Riverside and Hawaii Pacific, and has partial scholarship offers from other schools. But the 5-foot-11 outside hitter is seeking a full ride. With Encore having yet to secure a bid to Junior Nationals, how the team performs in its final qualifier tourney can directly impact Vidali’s future in the sport.
“This season is definitely important for a junior,” Vidali said. “For anyone, it’s important. I was hoping we would qualify for Nationals, just because that’s a lot of college exposure. Right now we haven’t qualified. I’m hoping to at our next tournament.”
Encore, a relatively new club started in 2011 by head coach Matt Krebs, is still gaining traction toward the national circuit. Krebs founded the Monsoon Volleyball Club in Portola Valley in 2002, and has since integrated it into The Foundry in Redwood City, which serves as the base of operations for Encore.
The facility is used to training athletes from various sports, including football, basketball, tennis and lacrosse. Housing rows of state-of-the-art volleyball courts and intended to be used as an Olympic training facility, it is foremost a volleyball facility. Its hyper-modern design has even gained it an interesting distinction, according to Krebs.
“A lot of people call it the Apple Store of volleyball,” Krebs said.
If The Foundry is the Apple Store of volleyball, then the Vision club is the Chicago Bulls of the sport — more specifically, the Bulls dynasty of the 1990s.
Vision 18 Gold took second place Saturday at Power League 3, falling 25-16 to underdog Five Starz in the one-set final. Vision has already punched its ticket to Junior Nationals though, qualifying via two bids with a silver medal in the Denver qualifier and a gold medal in the Los Angeles qualifier. Multiple bids are important as they will favor Vision in the seeding process in Minneapolis.
Vision was established in 1998 by club director Joe Ripp and college recruiting coordinator Dan Kaplan. Both are still very much driving entities behind Vision’s success. Throughout its seven age-based squads, the club has earned many medals at Nationals every year since 2007 — and 11 of the past 13 years — including a Vision 14 Gold silver medal in 2013, and a pair of bronzes for 18 Gold and 15 Gold in 2012.
“It’s an amazing level of play,” Kaplan said. “I do try to remind people that if you just take a step back for a minute … you’re watching the top one or two percent of volleyball players in the nation.”
Kaplan’s statement isn’t conflation. The Vision 18 Gold squad has eight players currently committed to college, including Huber (Menlo School) with a full scholarship to Princeton and Christine Alftin (Woodside) signed to a full ride to Cal.
Considering Kaplan’s background in athletics, the success should come as no surprise. Kaplan actually comes from the basketball ranks, having served as an assistant coach at Mitty from 1989-95. During that time, the buzz about Monarchs athletics revolved around a prep standout and future Olympic star, Keri Walsh. And everyone knew the eventual three-time Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball had quite a future ahead of her.
“I will never forget how they were commenting when we would go to the gym that we got to watch the Michael Jordan of volleyball play every day,” Kaplan said.
Shortly thereafter, Kaplan started an online volleyball magazine — back in the days of internet startups — called VBall.com. After two years of generating an audience among volleyball aficionados, Kaplan sold the website and took his volleyball vision from the cyber world to the real world by co-founding Vision.
Joining a volleyball club comes at quite an expense though. According to Kaplan, an individual player pays approximately $500-600 a month in dues and must still pay her own way for transportation and housing while on the road. With Vision 18 Gold playing three national qualifier tournaments this season, the cost ranges around $1000 per player per trip.
“I’ll be the first to say playing club ball is not cheap,” said Will Yuen, Vision 17 Gold head coach. “It’s pretty pricey. So, you have to be pretty financially stable to be able to play. And I know a lot of clubs offer scholarships and things like that to kind of help kids out.”
The tradeoff comes with college recruitment. As with club tournaments drawing tens of dozens of top-notch teams, recruiters tend to maximize their efforts at big-time events during the club season.
“High school has got nothing to do with it,” Kaplan said. “It has some supplement, but it has nothing to do with recruitment.”
As for Saturday’s Power League, there are no national implications for the regional event. In fact, Power League 3 was specifically an opportunity of some 17-year-old teams to gain experience against 18-year-old teams. Vision 17 Gold — featuring Lida Vandermeer (Menlo), Elisa Merten (Menlo) and Devin Joos (Menlo-Atherton) — competed in the one-day tourney and defeated Encore 18 in the opening match, 26-24, 25-20.
And in the championship match, after the 11 teams that showed spent eight hours turning Serramonte Del Rey into a veritable real-life pachinko machine, Five Starz 17-1 captured first place with a victory over Vision 18 Gold. The 17-year-old team is actually the top team of the Five Starz club out of Davis, as it will not have an 18-year-old team until next year.
“It’s nice,” Five Starz head coach Debby Colberg said. “Power League doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of when you want to go on to play in Minneapolis and do well in the Junior Nationals, but it just shows that you can compete at a high level.”
Five Starz has already qualified for Junior Nationals for the 17-year-old tournament, having earned a bid by winning the Colorado Crossroads qualifier in Denver earlier this year. The team has twice previously medaled at Nationals, with a third-place finish at the 16-year-old level last year and a second-place finish in the 15-year-old national tourney in 2012.
Delta Valley 18-1, which was on the docket for Power League 3, was a no-show as it opted to play in a national qualifier.