Boys volleyball, prominent on the coasts, is gaining popularity and this year, the 18U High Flyers club out of Lincoln brought it home with Hebron’s 6-foot, 4-inch middle and right side hitter, William Brueggemann on the team that won the USA Volleyball’s Boys Junior National Championship in Las Vegas, Nev., earlier this month.
Captain of the team, Brueggemann was also named Most Valuable Player of the tournament after five years of being a member of the team. As of last week, the victory hadn’t sunk in.
“It was surreal and still doesn’t feel real,” Brueggemann, who capped his final competition with the High Flyers this year, said. “It’s kind of like I don’t know if I really deserved it. I’m so reliant on everyone else because if they don’t get a good ball to the setter, I can’t hit. It’s a team effort.”
Six of the eight High Flyers graduate this year. The first time they qualified for nationals, Covid-19 halted the 16U championship tournament, but the boys and their coach, Jack MacLean, could feel the potential.
“From that moment, we felt we could win a national championship. He knew there was a chance,” Brueggemann said of MacLean.
The next year, the Flyers qualified a second time. They finished 20th out of 36 teams.
Brueggemann said as qualifiers, they took the tournament for granted.
“We took a lot away from that. We can’t play down, ever. Everyone there is a good team. You don’t go to nationals if you’re not,” he said.
This year, they owned the net with a 9-0 run in the Chicago qualifier. The boys were undefeated out of 69 teams until the final.
“I think that was a realization that we can do it,” Brueggemann said.
On Independence Day, the first day of nationals, they went 3-0 as the fourth seed and July 5, the Flyers swept two sets, overcoming a five or six-point deficit.
Going into the third day of the tournament, the Flyers played teams below their skill level, and relaxed their mental focus.
They won the first set against the Triangle Boys who were previously defeated by the Core 18 Elite, which would play the Flyers in the second set.
“That relaxed us further,” Brueggemann said.
The Flyers fell to Core Elite in two sets, their only loss in the tournament.
“It punched us in the face. We had to play with more energy,” Brueggemann recalled. “Everyone had one win and a loss, and we had to play one set to 15 points. We had to win.”
If they didn’t win, the Flyers would play in the bronze bracket to finish 24th at best and that wasn’t enough. The boys downed Core Elite, 15-11.
The next two sets were against BAVC out of California. The Flyers finished the first set, 25-18.
“In the second set, we turned it up a notch and beat them 25-14,” Brueggemann said. “We were going for it.”
For the gold, the Flyers had to win three games against teams from Oregon, Seattle, Wash., and Santa Monica, Calif.
“The first team had a huge middle and I don’t think we stopped him once. He had one hitting error and was getting kill after kill,” Brueggemann said. “We had to side out until he rotated to the back row.”
The boys zeroed in and collected points to beat their opponents from Oregon 25-22 in both sets, then moved on to Seattle to win tight matches, 26-24 and 25-22.
The final game was against Santa Monica that hadn’t dropped a set since they lost to the Flyers, 26-24 and 25-23 earlier in the tournament.
“Just one more game,” Brueggemann said.
The first set was close, 25-22 and in the second, the Flyers were down 10-2.
“They went on a crazy serving run. We ended up tying them at 20, but they had too much momentum,” Brueggemann, who explained volleyball is one of the most difficult sports to play. Santa Monica topped the Flyers 25-22.
In that third set, the Flyers found themselves down 12-10.
“We had to re-focus and do what we know,” Brueggemann said.
Then, the Flyers nailed two big blocks to tie the match.
“Blocks are one of the most important power plays you can make,” Brueggemann noted.
Santa Monica took a time out and returned to the court to score a point. The boys answered with a point to tie the score again, but Santa Monica got a kill to stay up on the Flyers.
Brueggemann responded to the setter, but Santa Monica dug the ball back over the net.
“On my second chance, I got the kill to tie it,” Brueggemann said, whose next move was a serve.
“They got a kill and we had to defend another match point,” he said. “We scored again off a kill. They’re a tough serving team. One of our smallest outsides went back to serve. They got a good pass off it, but their middle had an illegal hit. He would push the ball down hard instead.”
The referees called a carry on Santa Monica, a judgment call that surprised the team.
“Not all refs were calling it like they should have been. They got mad,” Brueggemann said.
That put the Flyers up by one point and Flyer Max Matras moved in for an ace serve to win the gold.
“Everyone went crazy on our side and we just fell to the ground,” Brueggemann said. The final score was 17-15. The High Flyers made history — the team is the first boys’ team from Nebraska to win nationals.
Most of his family was there to see it.
“We had a really good group of support. Being with these families for five years, we’re going to miss it,” mom Jennifer said.
The High Flyers, started by Greg and Nancy MacLean for their son Jack to play, is rather unique because players this year came from four states, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska to practice.
Brueggemann got his start when a cousin left a voicemail about a three-day volleyball camp for boys.
For the first time in his career with the Flyers, there were tryouts this year. Thirty players attended.
“The program is really growing. We practice on weekends at Spike’s Beach Bar and Grill in Lincoln,” he said. “There is a lot of dedication.”