Country Day sweeps St. Scholastica in tourney tuneup _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- St. Scholastica's Gabby Chaix tries to stop the shot of Country Day's Caroline Perlis as they play in a Nov. 1 match. Both teams are in the state tournament and will play quarterfinal matches Thursday.

Forty teams will make their way to the Pontchartrain Center on Thursday when the All-State Sugar Bowl LHSAA Volleyball State Tournament begins.

Almost half of them won’t have to travel too far.

Nineteen of the 40 teams hail from the New Orleans area, giving the tournament somewhat of a local flavor in a city that is a volleyball hotbed.

Country Day coach Julie Ibieta was a little surprised when told just how many New Orleans area teams had made it to the quarterfinals.

“That’s a lot,” Ibieta said. “The areas that are big in volleyball play are New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette. So to have half is pretty good.”

Division IV has the largest amount of local teams, with six of the eight in the field being from the New Orleans area.

Newman, Curtis, Sacred Heart and McGehee are all on the same side of the bracket in that division, which guarantees at least one local team will reach the championship Saturday. Top-seeded Pope John Paul II and Hannan are also in the field.

Five local teams (Cabrini, Ben Franklin, Lakeshore, Academy of Our Lady, and St. Scholastica) will be competing for the Division II crown.

In Division I, comprised of the largest schools, there are four area teams (Chapelle, Fontainebleau, Dominican, and Mount Carmel.)

De La Salle and Ursuline are in Division III, while First Baptist and Country Day are in Division V. Ibieta’s Country Day squad is going for its sixth consecutive title.

Ibieta and other local coaches attribute much of the success to the number of club volleyball teams in the New Orleans area.

“That makes a big difference,” AOL coach Teri Verret said. “The club kids play more and it’s almost 12 months out of the year, and that’s huge. They have quality coaches on the club teams. So if you are fortunate enough to have club players on your team, you are going to have that advantage.”

Tatiana Bell, a senior standout on John Curtis, plays club ball as well as for her school.

“Just the improvement I made between my eighth- and ninth-grade year in such a short amount of time playing club was crazy,” Bell said. “When we play a team and I see they have players I know from club, I know it’s going to be a good game.”

It helps also being in a more populated area of the state.

“I think per capita, we have more people playing than most parts of the state,” said Ibieta, a former college coach. “But across the board, volleyball in the state of Louisiana has improved over the last few years as well. I think more kids are playing and have been playing for a longer period of time. They are being trained and working harder, and there is just more exposure for the sport.”

But while the sport continues to grow in New Orleans, there are other parts of the state (specifically north Louisiana) that are lagging way behind.

Verret recalls a few years ago when there was a push by the Louisiana Volleyball Coaches’ Association to conduct clinics in north Louisiana to try to help create interest in that part of the state.

“A lot of those schools don’t even have volleyball,” Verret said. “They just don’t have it up there as much.”

But that’s not a problem here, where four of the quarterfinal matchups will be all-New Orleans area matches. (Newman vs. Curtis, McGehee vs. Sacred Heart, Dominican vs. Mount Carmel and Lakeshore vs. Ben Franklin).

And of course, the teams getting better are a result of the players getting better.

“We have always had good players here and there,” Ibieta said. “But we seem to have more of them now as far as them being exposed to a higher level of play.”