PULA, Croatia — In the end, the Americans swept the Americans in the U23 Division and a team from Italy beat an American squad in 18U.
But the volleyball is just a small part of the Global Challenge, a unique girls tournament that is played in an environment like no other in this town in western Croatia on the brilliantly blue Adriatic Sea.
“It’s something that can bring so many people together,” said UT Arlington’s Brianna Ford.
The teams — and that’s everyone involved, from coaches, players, parents, and Bring It Promotions staff — stay at the Hotel Pula. From there, everyone walked a short distance to the Dom Sportova competition arena for matches. Back at the hotel, there was pool time and during the off hours, girls from 11 countries could go cliff jumping, sightseeing and more.
“I like it because it’s a teaching tournament,” said Mick Haley, the former Texas, USC and USA Olympic coach. “I get to come and teach. It’s not about winning. Certainly we try to do everything right and come out winning if we do it right, but the kids get to learn how international volleyball is coached and how to play with this (Mikasa) ball, and how to play with six substitutions and all of those kinds of things.
“And you don’t just go sit in your room and wait for the competition. You’re out at the beach, you’re downtown, you’re making new friends, you’re down at the pool. We actually have fun and play a high level of competition.”
And his team won.
“I always like that,” Haley admitted.
A year ago, he coached a team into the final but lost to an Israeli team coached by former Stanford and USA great Logan Tom. This year, Tom and the Israelis had other international tournament obligations. For that matter, it’s not the plan of Bring It Promotions to have USA teams dominate. There were teams from the US, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Netherlands, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, Bosnia and England.
“We’re really happy the way things turned out,” said Bring It’s Tim Kelly after the 17th Global Challenge. “We’re really looking forward to getting some foreign teams back in the final next year.”
Nevertheless, in Friday’s U23 final, featuring all American current or former college players, it was Haley’s Team BIP overpowering BIP East Coast, coached by Oregon State assistant Arica Nassar.
She’s been in Europe for most of the past five weeks, because the OSU team did a BIP tour for two weeks in June. Nassar, a former Oregon State standout, went home after that, recruited at Junior Nationals, and then came back.
“This was an amazing experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a team with that much energy,” said Nassar, who played professionally in Finland and Sweden after her Oregon State career. “They really warmed my heart.”
Madelyn Robinson, the standout outside hitter for the University of Utah, led Team BIP and was named the tournament MVP. She was clearly the best player on the floor all week in the division.
Robinson, who will play her fifth year next season, played her first two years at BYU. The product of Highland, Utah, was the only Utah player to appear in every set last season and averaged 3.01 kills per set. She was probably close to that average here.
Brianna Ford was third on the team in kills at UT Arlington last season as a freshman. She’s a 6-footer from Amarillo who was sick earlier in the week, but as she started feeling better and got more playing time, her team reflected it. She had a strong final match.
“It was so much, just being able to play with all these amazing people,” Ford said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
American University libero Rachael Bennett got stronger as the tournament went on, Pepperdine right side Emma Ammerman carried a big load on both ends, and Grand Canyon middle Annabelle Kubinski and Virgina middle Abby Tadder played well. Team BIP also got big boosts from reserves Katie Putney of American, Idaho State’s Jamie Streit and San Diego State’s Julia Haynie. And throughout the tournament, Peyton Neff of Nebraska-Kearney and Ella Mihacevich of Northern Illinois stepped up as setters.
“I enjoyed the even competition. We did not have one easy match,” Haley said. “When we started out it wasn’t very good volleyball, but all the teams seemed to get better by the third day and it was really fun to compete, because you didn’t know if you were going to win or not.”
The BIP East Coast team was led by Northeastern’s Erica Staunton, a senior outside from Orland Park, Illinois, who lit it up in the semifinals against a team from Slovenia. She was one of the best players in the tournament but struggled in the final.
Her team had a tough blow in the second set when Yale outside hitter Kathryn Attar went down with an injury.
But one player who sparkled throughout, both on the court and off with tremendous energy, was libero Crew Hoffmeier, a sophomore at VCU.
“It was one of the best experiences I ever had volleyball-wise,” said the product of Assumption High School and KiVA in Louisville, who was making her first trip out of the United States.
“It’s a great opportunity for girls to get exposure who want to play pro and that’s a dream of mine. I want to go play at the highest level possible and I think this experience really made that possible.
“I got my name out there, I met a bunch of great people and I had a great time playing volleyball.”