Absolute volleyball team caps epic journey to Columbus with bid to Nationals

Players on the Absolute Volleyball 18 Black team have made it to Nationals each of the past six years and would do just about anything to push that streak to seven in their final club season together before going their separate ways for college this summer.

Proof of that came earlier this month as the team went to extreme lengths just to make it to a qualifying tournament in Columbus before battling jet lag and sleep deprivation to take second place and secure its spot for Nationals in April.

“What really kept us going and kept us just together for the most part was the fact that we don’t have that much time left with each other,” Absolute setter Leah Wilton-LaBoy said. “We’re all aware that this is our last club season. … This tournament was our second travel tournament of the season. We didn’t end up as high as we wanted to in Nashville so we were working hard in practice to fix what we needed to fix so we could show up in Columbus.”

Half of the 12 players of the team hail from Marin. Four of the girls – Wilton-LaBoy, Grace Oliva, Julianna Treadway and Bella McGirr – play prep volleyball for Marin Catholic. Brooke Leslie plays for Redwood High and Josie Griffiths plays for Archie Williams.

Merely showing up in Columbus proved to be more difficult than any of the players could have imagined.

“We were planning to leave Thursday morning (Feb. 3),” Wilton-LaBoy said. “Our flight was super early. On Tuesday practice when I walked in the gym, (Absolute coach Konrad Ott) came up to me and said our flight got canceled.”

A massive winter storm was burying most of the east side of the country in snow and the team was left scrambling to figure out if there was a way to still travel to the tournament.

“We had two of our 18s teams scheduled to fly into Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday, spend the night and get ready to play Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Ott said via email. “Due to the storm that hit a majority of the country that Thursday our flight on Tuesday night was canceled by Southwest Airlines. We then spent the next 24 hours rescheduling and trying to figure out the best way to get to Columbus.”

One of the player’s parents is a pilot for United Airlines and suggested flying as close to Columbus as possible then attempting to fly in on Friday morning when the storm was expected to die down.

Plan B was to have some of the players fly to New York and others to Charlotte on Thursday but those flights were also canceled. Plan C sent the 18 Pink team on a different flight to Charlotte while the Black team headed for Atlanta.

“The majority of our team had a flight Thursday night at 10 pm,” Wilton-Laboy said. “That flight was to Atlanta. We got to Atlanta then had a connecting flight straight to Columbus. We got into Columbus at 9:45 am the next day. That was the day that game play started.”

The team arrived at its hotel at 11 am local time – fortunately the hotel was connected to the convention center at which the tournament was being held. After grabbing a quick bite to eat, players tried to get an hour or two of sleep before play was set to begin at 3 pm that day.

“We made it this far. The fact we’re in Columbus right now and not stuck at an airport is crazy,” Wilton-LaBoy said. “We have to make this trip worth it. … We all took the exhaustion and the overall stress of it all toward motivation to finish as high as we could and qualify.”

The team went 2-1 to make it to the gold pool then got as much rest as it could before beginning play at 6 am local time Saturday.

“We all had to scramble for energy drinks, try to find something to keep us going through the jet lag. … I feel like I’m still jet lagged,” Wilton-LaBoy said a few days after arriving back in the Bay Area. “We had to go on a red eye, play three matches then wake up at 6 am the next day – 3 am California time – and play a whole other round of pool play.”

The team lost its opening game for the second consecutive day but rallied to win its next two and qualify for the final four. Absolute then won its fourth match of the day, meaning it needed to win its first game on Sunday to secure a bid to Nationals.

After overcoming that much adversity, the players had to wake up early again on Sunday and defeat the same team it lost to in Saturday’s opening game – a team called Adversity.

“My team came out focused and energized and we played great defeating Adversity in two straight sets,” Ott said. “This guaranteed we would earn one of the open bids.”

Absolute wound up losing in the championship game against Metro 18-1 but at that point, the mission to continue its streak of appearances at Nationals had already been accomplished.

“So we earned the open bid, which is amazing,” Ott said. “To me the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen was what this team was able to overcome to be able to play at such a high level with very little rest, extreme amounts of travel and anxiety if we were even going to get to the venue – not to mention the three hour time change from California. I’m so proud of the girls, coaches and parents for everything they pulled off.”

The Nationals for this age group are set for late April in Phoenix.

“We’ll play with the top 36 teams in the nation,” Ott said. “We’re the only NorCal team qualified in the Open 18 Division and only two from SoCal made it. Once again the girls have put themselves in a position where they are proving themselves to be one of the best.”

The team’s flight back to the Bay Area landed around midnight on Sunday night/Monday morning. Wilton-LaBoy estimates she got about nine hours of sleep during her three days in Columbus.

“What kept me going – and I know a lot of my teammates felt the same – is we got to play,” Wilton-LaBoy said. “No matter how tired I am, I’m looking forward to practicing or playing in general. We were all motivated to make this tournament count.”

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