Club volleyball team with WPIAL stars finds immediate chemistry, success

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Sunday, February 11, 2024 | 11:01 AM


It’s club volleyball season and one team loaded with talented WPIAL athletes already has brought home a tournament championship.

Pittsburgh Elite Volleyball Association’s 17 Premier team took first place at the inaugural Nike Classic Open in Columbus on Jan. 13-14.

Maggie Burnham, who played collegiately at Northwestern and Duquesne (when studying for her master’s), and Evan McElhinny serve as 17 Premier coaches.

“I couldn’t be prouder of how the team performed,” Burnham said. “My assistant and I had been pushing the team in practices to not only work on their physical game but to train the mental aspect as well. We challenged them to increase their competitive spirit, and we really saw them flip a switch in Columbus.

“Going into the first tournament, you never know exactly how your team is going to show up. We had only been playing the other PEVA teams in our practice block, so a foreign environment with new teams is always going to carry a bit of uncertainty. However, seeing how hard they worked in the weeks leading up to the tournament, and then how they rose to meet our competitive challenges the week of, I was confident (we) would have a great showing.”

There were 22 teams in the 17 open division. The PEVA girls competed against many high-level teams from around the United States and Canada, including squads from Ontario, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky. PEVA won the gold medal in the gold bracket.

Members of PEVA 17 Premier, which posted a 7-1 record in Columbus, are Quaker Valley OH Molly MacDonald, Bethel Park setter Cassidy Sullivan, Baldwin setter Avery Barrett, Upper St. Clair OH/RS Hannah Randolph, South Fayette OH/RS Charlotte Dziki, Fox Chapel OH Claire Feczko, Canon-McMillan MH Lilly Thornbury, Carlynton MH Olivia Thompson, Kiski Area libero Maddie Joyce and North Catholic DS Becca Feczko.

All of the girls are juniors in high school.

“There are 10 girls on the team, and we all contribute to our success,” MacDonald said. “We’re all supportive of each other on and off the court. I think it’s going to be a fun season.

“Junior year is a big year for us because many of us are trying to get recruited to play volleyball in college. Maggie Burnham, our head coach, has created a great culture on our team. We train hard, stay focused, and have fun.”

The 5-foot-10 MacDonald, an all-section and All-WPIAL selection at Quaker Valley, reiterated that it was a group effort in securing the top spot at the Nike Classic.

“We have five girls on the team returning from the past two seasons and five new girls,” she said. “We all work well together and really jelled. Even when we made mistakes, we were able to shake it off and focus on the next play.

“Maddie Joyce and Becca Feczko did their job and got the balls to our setters. Avery Barrett and Cassidy Sullivan have great hands and court sense. They did a great job at getting the balls to the pins (MacDonald, Randolph, Dziki, Feczko), so we could make the kills to get the points. And our middles, Olivia Thompson and Lilly Thornbury, were blocking and crushing balls all weekend.”

The 5-8 Sullivan earned Big 56, all-section and Class 4A all-star honors at Bethel Park last fall.

“It felt like we had been together for months,” she said. “Playing with one another felt natural and like one unit. I was really impressed with our serve-receive as well as our transition into offense. We worked very well together. Coach Maggie and coach Evan supported us through some tough battles and developed a strategic plan for each opponent.

“I am excited for the rest of this club season as well as my senior year at Bethel Park. Volleyball has always been a huge part of my life and I cannot wait to see where it takes me in college.”

The 5-7 Barrett from Baldwin believes her PEVA team couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.

“It was our first tournament, so normally it can be challenging figuring out what works best with offense and defense,” she said, “but no matter what rotation we were in we played our level of volleyball, and we are really proud of that.

“And I would like to say that I really appreciate my coaches, Evan and Maggie. They’re always pushing us, and they believe in us to do our best on the court and in the classroom. They create such a great atmosphere for us, and I love that about them.”

PEVA 17 Premier held tryouts this past summer, a few weeks after the qualifying teams returned from nationals in Chicago. About half of the players on this team were on 16 Premier last year, and that team qualified for the USAV 16U Nationals.

“The new additions have been amazing and really contribute to the talent level of this team,” Burnham said. “They were chosen by our coaching staff. Our two setters, Avery and Cassidy, act as our on-court captains so they can be the ones to communicate with officials.

“I am proud of how hard this team has worked and the success it has had in a short amount of time. This is a fantastic group of young athletes and part of what makes them so successful is that they have no egos or players needing to be the superstar on the team. Everyone has their moment to shine, and they celebrate the successes of others just as much as their own.”

During their time in Ohio, the 17 Premier girls were able to watch a Pro Volleyball Federation team, the Columbus Fury, practice. The Columbus Fury is owned by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his parents, Jimmy and Robin Burrow.

PEVA 17 Premier competed closer to home Feb. 3-4 at the Steel City Freeze at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.

The 17 Premier girls placed third in their division as PEVA 17 Elite captured the tournament title. The two squads squared off in the semifinal round; the 17 Elite squad won 19-25, 28-26, 15-9.

“It’s always tough to meet up with your own club prior to the championship knowing that match will be the end of the road for one team,” Burnham said. “But anyone watching our match against 17 Elite can attest to the fact our team is a force to be reckoned with. One of our strengths is the girls’ ability to stay calm and focused, even when the match is tight. Not much can rattle our players; they are tough and that’s what makes them so fun to coach.”

“Our girls have made a statement for themselves these past two tournaments and I cannot wait to watch how the rest of the season develops. We hold our players to a high standard, and they are continuing to impress us every day in practice and even more so in the tournaments. We had some really big wins, including a few in which we came back from trailing the other team. That is just a testament to this team’s grittiness and unwillingness to settle.”

The 17 Premier girls already are two-time medalists; their team trophies are kept at the Pitt Elite Club in Emsworth.

“Each win is truly a team win,” Burnham said. “These ladies are fantastic people not only on the court, but also in the classroom and through the acts of service they perform throughout the community. They all have fantastic futures ahead of them.

“Keep an eye out for Pittsburgh 17 Premier this season because we are just getting started.”

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