River Cities Thunder qualifies for nationals
HUNTINGTON -- As River Cities Thunder club director Mitch Jacobs shouted instructions to his team during Tuesday evening's high-intensity training session, he couldn't help but get a bit of a smile over his face.
Nearly 40 kids were out on the floor for the unadvertised clinic session, aging from 13 to 18 out on the court.
The smile came because Jacobs remembers 11 years ago when the River Cities Thunder volleyball club started with just 17 kids and only two teams.
Fast forward to 2013 and Jacobs' 18U team with River Cities is the Pioneer Region champion and has qualified for the 2013 USA Volleyball Junior National Championships, which take place in Dallas, Texas from June 28 to July 1.
They are the first club volleyball team in West Virginia history to ever advance to the USA Volleyball Junior National Championships, which used to be known as the Junior Olympics.
The team will compete in the National Division -- one of four divisions to be offered for 18U teams at the Junior National Championships.
"This is the first team to ever do this in the state and it's an honor for them to go to the nationals," Jacobs said. "This team has put in a lot of hard work, a lot of hours and to see them be able to represent themselves and the area as the first, it's exciting stuff."
The four divisions at the Junior National Championships are Open (32 teams), National (48 teams), USA (24 teams) and American (48 teams). That means this River Cities Thunder is one of the top 80 teams in the nation and is one of only 152 to qualify for the prestigious event in Dallas.
With it being the first-ever time for the team to qualify, Jacobs was worried his team might not be able to get the money together on short notice to head to Dallas for the championships, so he set up fundraisers with clinics and a car wash at Auto Zone, located at 8th Ave. and Hal Greer Blvd. on June 15.
One of the biggest obstacles was getting money together for the tournament's entry fee, but Rubberlite sponsored the team's entry fee of $900 to lighten the load.
It's a stark contrast to a time when Jacobs remembers volleyball not getting much support from the community.
That has all changed over the last decade with the emergence of the River Cities Thunder volleyball club, which Jacobs and Mike Strickland helped launch upon Jacob's arrival in Huntington to coach Marshall's volleyball program.
"Mike Strickland came into my office at Marshall and he wasn't going to take no for an answer," Jacobs said. "He said 'Why don't you come out to watch a couple of high school games and you'll see what I mean." I did.
"I went and watched Cabell Midland and Huntington High in 2002 and they were ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the state. Not to be mean, but I was not watching volleyball the way it was meant to be played. I was watching both teams freeball over the net. That's where the state was in the sport. We went to lunch and I told him (Strickland) I would do it if he would do all the paperwork. That's how River Cities was born."
From its humble beginnings, River Cities Thunder has grown into a nationally-recognized club, featuring 90 to 110 players between its travel teams and its Sunday league.
Derived of players within a 50-mile radius (per NCAA rules), the club reached its peak this year when the 18Us captured the Pioneer Region championship in Louisville.
Previously, River Cities Thunder was a part of the Ohio Valley Region, but that region forced clubs to classify what division they were going to compete in, thus limiting its possibilities.
By moving to the Pioneer Region, the Thunder was able to compete in its own home tournament -- Spikefest, which the 18Us won for a third-straight year.
"We left the OVR because they make you classify whether you are regional, American or National," Jacobs said. "Once you classify, you can't reclassify and we can't do that here because in a given year, we don't know what we are getting into at the beginning of a year.
"If we registered National or American, we were not able to compete in a regional tournament. By their rules of classification, we couldn't compete in our own home tournament and still go to their big tournament to try to go to nationals. In the Pioneer, we don't have to classify. We register and play in any tournaments we want and then go to play for the Pioneer Region bid, which we got."
Jacobs said it could not be more fitting that this particular group with the 18Us to be the ones who make their mark as the first-ever from West Virginia to advance to this level.
Before the timely move to the Pioneer Region, this group of 18U players were taking to the court in 2009 as the club's first-ever 14U team.
Two of those players who were there as 14s -- Taylor Riedel and Cassie Weaver of Cabell Midland -- signed National Letters of Intent to play for Jacobs at Marshall while Huntington High's Alexis Williams (Fairmont State) and Jackie Sites are also on the 18U team.
Ironically, just as a Strickland helped start the River Cities program with Jacobs, it was another Strickland -- Mike's daughter Taylor, who played at Marshall and is now an assistant coach at defending state champion Spring Valley -- who is coaching the 18U team to the pinnacle of volleyball for a West Virginia-based team.
Jacobs lauded the job she has done with the team this season.
"I don't know how she did it really," Jacobs said. "We gave this team, essentially, the entire month of April off because of the different schedules and Proms and its their senior year. Taylor Strickland really got through to the little girls inside these older players again and it brought out their fun in volleyball.
"I don't know if they got refreshed or what, but I had parents texting me at the regionals telling me they've never seen the team play better. She brought out the fun and the love of the game in them. That's such a testament to a coach. That separated her as one of the better coaches to ever come out of here."
That love of the game showed when Weaver and Riedel each spoke about the opportunity to play at the Junior National Championships.
Each was excited, but they also said it was a bit sad because it will be their last time playing club volleyball. They make the transition to college volleyball with Jacobs in August.
"We were so pumped up when we found out that our season wasn't over and we got to extend our youth career," Riedel said. "It's one last fun volleyball tournament with our team. We've been together a while now."
In addition to Riedel, Weaver, Williams and Sites, team members include Jayden Jacobs, Shelby Conley, Lexi Mourier, Sara Ferguson and Tia Pettigrew.