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Midnight Sun shines at big volleyball tournament

Beth Bragg

The Midnight Sun isn't just shining in Alaska.

A team from the Midnight Sun Volleyball Club captured the championship in the U-18 division at Festival Volleyball, a girls tournament that drew more than 500 teams and 7,000 players to Phoenix this week.

"We are on top of the world," coach Judy Knecht said after Alaska's 25-15, 25-19 championship-match win over Legacy of Santa Clarita, Calif.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of Festival Volleyball, the nation's biggest tournament for girls. Every year since 1984, Midnight Sun Volleyball has sent one or more teams, but none came close to winning a title until now.

"We got the tar beat out of us for several years," said Midnight Sun founder Virgil Hooe, who created the club with Dan Knecht back in 1983, "and then we got gradually better, gradually better."

Midnight Sun started the tournament seeded 28th in a field of 45 teams.

Guided by head coach Mike Vincent, the Alaskans posted a 10-1 record over four days. Their only loss came in their first match to the same team they met in the championship -- Legacy, a team featuring many of the players who had won the U-17 title last year at Festival Volleyball.

Midnight Sun didn't drop a set after that 25-21, 25-17 defeat, and twice the Alaskans avenged the loss. They beat Legacy 25-23, 25-21 Wednesday -- a day on which they took down the No. 1 seed and the No. 2 seed -- and again in the title match.

In the championship match, which was broadcast online by ESPN3, the Alaskans showed their balance, with many contributing and no one dominating.

With Morgan Hooe dishing out 17 assists, Mikayla Sweet put down seven kills, and Holly Morehouse and Heather Green had six apiece. Defensively, Morehouse racked up four blocks, Morgen Wohrle came up with 11 digs and Leah Swiss had six digs.

"We have no go-to superstar player," Knecht said. "We have 10 excellent athletes, and they all did their jobs. There was no pettiness, no cattiness. They were there to play volleyball."

The team of Hooe, Sweet, Morehouse, Green, Wohrle, Swiss, Morgan Christy, Rita Dexter, Allison Leigh and Kayla Sims come from various high schools and several compete in multiple sports that prevent them from playing volleyball year-round. The Phoenix tournament marked their first time playing as a team this year, whereas many of their opponents were playing in their sixth or seventh tournament of the summer.

"They're 35 to 40 matches ahead of us," Virgil Hooe said. "To me it's like a Miracle on Ice, because we're taking kids who don't have the experience the other kids have.

"Then they go out there and pull this off. It's way cool, and we may never see this again. It shows everyone what's possible. It's gonna be a big boon for volleyball (in Alaska)."

As he spoke Thursday night, Hooe reminisced about the origins of the Midnight Sun Volleyball Club, which today has 24 teams and three satellite clubs, including ones in Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula. Midnight Sun players are routinely the best high school players in the state, and many wind up playing college volleyball.

The club's first year was 1983, but it's defining year was 1984, Hooe said. That's the year when Anchorage got a look at elite international volleyball.

"The USA women and Japanese women teams were flying from the Lower 48 to Tokyo for some exhibition matches, and we persuaded them to stop over and play a match here," Hooe said. "We filled up West High and from that moment on, volleyball took off. We put a team together and went down to the Festival."

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.