This year's 16U Rage Volleyball squad based out of Ripon — a true 15U team that placed second in last year's 14U Junior National Championships — won the Windy City Qualifier in Chicago last weekend with a 9-0 effort that included a straight-set finals win over the Texas Tornadoes.
The first-place finish came a week after a third-place finish at the NorthEast Qualifier in Philadelphia that earned the Rage a bid for this year's USA Junior National Open Championships.
“There are no other 15U teams playing in this division,” Head coach Gabe Leal said. “Being as last year we took second at the national tournament in open division, we decided that in this year we would play up in the age division to kind of challenge ourselves to hopefully make another run at being pretty successful at the National Tournament.”
With third and first place showings in their first two regional qualifiers, the Rage aim to dominate the remainder of their qualifying tournaments to earn the highest seed possible for Nationals and increase their odds at a return to the finals.
Helping with that effort are three girls from Turlock — Julia Handy and Jadyn Tubbs of Turlock High and Whitney Barnes of Pitman High. This year marks the fifth year as teammates for the trio and Leal says that experience playing together is just what his team needs to surpass last year's success.
“They've been together since they were 11,” Leal said of the girls.
Barnes, who advanced to the Division I State Volleyball Championships with Pitman last season, is a key outside hitter for the rage and one of their strongest attackers.
“Physically, Whitney is just super, super athletic. Super strong with a high skill set,” Leal said of Barnes.
Tubbs is also a strong attacker for the Rage, as she was her freshman year for the Bulldogs.
“Jadyn is maybe the most athletic girl I've ever coached,” Leal said. “Her vertical is pretty freakish. She touches, I want to say, somewhere around 9’7”. As a kid who’s only 5’5”, that's a pretty high vertical.”
Handy was also instrumental for Turlock last season as she and Tubbs helped the Bulldogs triple their wins from 2013 to 2014 and finish second in the Central California Conference. Much like the progress of her high school team, Leal says Handy's improvement as a player has been exponential.
“She has probably progressed the most,” Leal said. “Her skill set has evolved over the last half a year to the whole year.”
Along with players from Modesto, Stockton and Sonora, the Turlock trio will continue their quest to earn higher seeding for Nationals this weekend at the Southern California Volleyball Association Junior National Qualifier in Los Angeles. That tournament will be followed by the Far Western National Qualifier in Reno, Nevada April 18-20 while the USA Junior National Open Championships will be held June 23- July 2 in New Orleans.
“They're definitely going to see the best girls in their age group from the entire country,” Leal said of Nationals. “Every match is going to be a tough, tough match.”