By Walter Villa
Amy Neal isn’t making any guarantees on behalf of Austin Juniors.
Although Neal and her teammates won the under-17 national title last season and are gearing up for a repeat run, Neal knows it's anything but a sure thing that the Texas-based team will win the 18s championship this summer in Columbus, Ohio.
“It gets harder every year,” said Neal, a senior at Lake Travis who was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year after leading her team to a perfect record and the No. 2 spot in the final POWERADE FAB 50 national volleyball rankings. “The 18s are a completely different game. It’s faster and more intense, and everyone is really good.”
Three players from last year’s powerhouse team graduated early and are now in college. Mackenzie Mayo and Amy Rosenbaum are at Baylor, and Cassidy Vaughn is at Boston College.
Don’t feel bad for Austin Juniors, though. They added four new players, including one of the nation’s best middle blockers in 6-foot-3 Molly McCage, who is a University of Texas recruit just like Neal.
“Molly is the best middle we’ve had in a long time,” said Austin Juniors coach Glen Lietzke, who worked with middle blockers as a Texas assistant coach from 1984 to 2001. “She can be as good as she wants to be.”
The other three newcomers are Dana Faught and Kaci Thompson – both Central Florida recruits – and Torre Blake (East Carolina).
Besides Neal, the other returners are Washington signee Katy Beals, Texas A&M recruits Sierra Patrick, Jazzmin Babers and Angela Lowak; Dartmouth recruit Paige Caridi and Southern Utah commit Taylor Heine.
Neal said this year’s team has just as much talent as 2011.
“We have a good enough team to repeat,” she said. “And the new girls who haven’t won a national title before want to win really badly.”
Neal said that’s why McCage came over from the Wave club team, which is based in Houston.
“Molly wanted to compete for a national title,” Neal said. “[We] played together in the Under Armour (national all-star game) in San Antonio and will be playing together at Texas. She also wanted to play for (Lietzke).”
Lietzke, who founded Austin Juniors with just eight players in 1984, has seen his club grow to its current roster of about 250.
Austin Juniors has won three national titles, including open championships in 2008 (17s) and 2011 (17s).
He feels this year’s team could go a long way if it gets healthy. Babers, who is out with a biceps injury, could return next month, but that is far from certain. Patrick, who has a lower-leg injury, has been limited to the back row so far.
“Repeating is hard enough with the same players,” Lietzke said. “But we’ve added new kids, we’ve had injuries, and we lost three players with unique skills. That’s a lot of moving parts.
“The chemistry seems OK, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Ross chooses sand
In yet another sign that sand volleyball is gaining momentum, 6-2 freshman Summer Ross has transferred from the University of Washington -- which does not offer the sport -- to Pepperdine, which will begin play in March.
In 2010, Ross was named USA Volleyball’s Female Beach Player of the Year, becoming the first junior player to win the award.
Ross had a strong freshman season indoors for the Huskies, becoming one of just two Huskies to start every match last season. Washington made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second round, but when the Huskies decided not to add sand volleyball at this time, Ross moved on to Pepperdine’s Malibu, Calif., campus.
Her decision splits up perhaps the best 1-2 freshmen duo in Huskies history -- Ross and Krista Vansant, the ESPNHS 2010 Player of the Year.