The twelve 13-year-old girls who make up the Livewire 13 Adidas volleyball club thought their head coach may as well have been placing a jinx on them.
“Three-and-oh, three-and-oh,” Steve Merriott playfully chanted to his team ahead of their first day at the USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior Nationals Championships, hinting at the prospect of winning each of their first three games. It was his way of instilling confidence in his club, and also a way to duly express how much faith he had in them to steal three wins and commence the biggest tournament of the year with a flawless record.
After the Livewire 13s granted Merriott’s wishes — winning its first trio of games in comfortable fashion — he altered his chant.
“Then it was six-and-oh, then seven-and-oh, then eight-and-oh,” he said, a nudge to his team to continue their winning ways amongst the 64 teams who made up the American Division at the tournament in Indianapolis from July 1 through July 4.
The consensus that Merriott had placed a wicked spell on the Livewire club — a bit of an unwritten rule in sports that you should refrain from talks of winning and success in order to avoid jinxing it all — had quickly vanished. Instead, as Merriott had hoped, his playful chant turned into a weekend-long rallying cry, and the girls quickly responded to it.
They rattled off nine straight wins to reach the semifinals, barreling their way through teams from Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana.
“The hard work paid off,” Merriott said. “It was something we worked hard all season long for, and it really came together at the right time.”
Despite the stretch of nine consecutive wins, Livewire 13 stumbled in the semifinals, ironically enough, against a team from Arizona. They were bested by the Storm — whom Livewire had actually beaten in a tournament months ago to qualify for Nationals — in straight sets, 25-22 and 25-20.
They departed Indianapolis with a third-place finish and a handsome trophy to boot.
“I wouldn’t say that was hard to believe because I really felt like, going into the tournament, we were a top-eight team,” Merriott said. “Leaving with third, leaving with a medal and a trophy and representing Arizona as well as we did, I was ecstatic. I can’t tell you how special this was.”
The Livewire 13 Adidas club, which does have a sponsorship with Adidas, has been playing together for less than a year. There is a core of girls — about five, Merriott said — who have been playing together for a handful of years now. The rest of the roster was pieced together late last year, consisting of a dozen girls spanning the West Valley.
Their lack of playing together has hardly been a concern, and rarely does it show itself. It was masterfully disguised in Indianapolis, and instead of looking like a team that was still getting a grasp on one another, Livewire 13 performed like a well-oiled machine, free of errors and full of soul.
It’s a strength of theirs now, their chemistry on and off the court, that Merriott believed gave them an advantage over other teams at Nationals.
“It’s a new team and we used that word ‘gel’ all season long, trying to get these players all season long to understand that we’re trying to play as a team, and not six individuals out on the court. They really battled for themselves as well as their teammates and that was really impressive. It was definitely team volleyball.”
To get to Indianapolis, Livewire 13 had plenty of avenues to do so. They had played in several qualifying tournaments that would have clinched a spot at Nationals, but they ultimately did so when they defeated the Storm to win one in late March.
And to understand Livewire 13’s success at the national level, Merriott traced back to the club’s infancy, when they first began playing tournaments last November.
The Livewire organization, which also has other teams of varying age groups, often uses the ploy of setting its teams up for “difficult volleyball” over the course of the club season by entering the younger teams into older tournaments. Livewire’s 13’s team had routinely played in 16-year-old tournaments this season, a preemptive measure to get them familiar with competing against the better, more mature opponents it would inevitably face at the Nationals Championships.
“As far as maturity, that keeps us on our toes. (This season) was definitely a rollercoaster ride. A lot of ups, a lot of downs throughout the season, but what that does it set them up for success when they’re playing their own age group.”
The building blocks have been set for what Merriott and the rest of the Livewire organization believe to be a long stretch of dominance surrounding this current 13-year-old squad. That they can muster up a third-place finish at Nationals in year one leaves room for belief that next year they may be able to walk away from the same tournament with a first- or second-place finish.
“Being a first-year team that’s really played together for the first time and making it to the show and making it to the podium, that was extremely special. Obviously, we have high expectations for them next year going into 14s.”
Merriott and Co. will spend the next year diligently working on avoiding becoming complacent and content with a top-three finish. He knows his club has more in the tank, and he’s adamant they’re capable of surfacing it.
“You can always be better. That’s something I’ve always stressed with the girls. I’m going to ask you to fix this or apply what you learned, but then I’m always going to ask more of you. That’s something that I think they really grasped toward the end of the season, and they were always willing to give more.”