Press "Enter" to skip to content

Serving up Success

AJA Hosts Inaugural Volleyball Invitational

No 3:00 AM wake up time. No early morning flight. No staying with host families or visiting an unfamiliar school. No late night journey home. Instead, the AJA High School volleyball team would play on their home courts and in their own community.

Last year, the AJA volleyball team traveled to LA for a tournament at YULA High School. This fall, however, they attended an invitational hosted at their own campus from November 30 to December 3. Organized by a committee of AJA parents led by Justin Katz, a parent volunteer and coach for the flag football and baseball teams, the tournament welcomed seven schools. On Thursday and Friday, teams participated in rounds of pool play to determine their position in later competitions. After a Shabbat of programming in Toco Hills, the tournament concluded with elimination matches for a silver and gold bracket, with AJA winning third place in the gold bracket. 

“For junior Dassie Chasen, the invitational offered the benefits of a sports tournament and Shabbaton without the hassles of traveling as a visiting team.”

For junior Dassie Chasen, the invitational offered the benefits of a sports tournament and Shabbaton without the hassles of traveling as a visiting team. Dassie said she enjoyed participating in the tournament at her own school, knowing she was near home in a familiar setting.

Though Dassie did not need to travel by plane to the tournament, many of its attendees did. On Thursday, players arrived at AJA from seven schools across the country: Berman Hebrew Academy (MD), Maimonides School (MA), Northwest Yeshiva High School (WA), Ma’ayanot (NJ), The Frisch School (NJ), Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (NY), and Magen David Yeshiva (NY). 

Hosting more than one hundred volleyball players, along with their chaperones and coaches, required much preparation. Tournament organizers spent hours planning logistics including host families, food, coordination with visiting schools, and security. Coach Katz said he based many of these details off of the annual Flag Football Spring Classic Tournament, which he organized for the past two years. The football invitational gave the planning committee “a roadmap, a blueprint to build a successful experience,” he said, so “we weren’t starting from scratch.” The group began planning logistics in mid-September.

Coach Katz said that the Spring Classic served not only as a model but also an inspiration for the Volleyball Invitational.  With an annual flag football tournament at AJA as well as other basketball and baseball tournaments for the boys, “I thought: why not the girls? The girls can have that too.”

AJA entered the tournament with a match against Frisch, which they won 3-0. Senior Leora Frank saw the game as evidence of the team’s cohesiveness and “high energy going in” to the tournament. “We really worked together and played to our full best,” added freshman Liel Lugasi. “I’ve never seen us play that well.”

The support of the AJA community further encouraged the team. On Friday morning, the Jaguars played and won a match against NYHS, in a game that the entire high school came to watch. Many students and teachers also attended Thursday and Sunday games to support the Jaguars. Leora enjoyed the “home court advantage” and appreciated that “people are there to cheer for us,” although she missed the opportunity to travel to a different school for a tournament as in years past. She said the team felt “comfortable” playing at AJA, knowing that “this is our ground; we’ve got this.”

With Thursday and Friday’s rounds of pool play complete, the tournament transitioned to its Shabbaton portion. All Shabbat programming, including tefillah, meals, and an afternoon Torah Bowl competition, took place at Ohr HaTorah.

Senior Ella Katz said the Friday night dinner stood out among the Shabbat activities. The girls were encouraged to sit with other teams, allowing for them to get to know each other. “Everybody was there to meet people, to become friends with these people, on the court and off the court,” she said. At the end of the meal, all gathered around one table for zemirot. “It didn’t matter if you were SAR, you’re AJA, you’re Frisch, you’re Ma’ayanot,” Ella said, because “you still are sharing the same songs and you’re saying the same words.”
Ella saw the opportunities to bond with other teams as a theme of the weekend. “All the girls came in knowing that they were on separate teams but wanting to become one team,” she said. Commenting on the players’ sportsmanship during games, Liel elaborated, “Even though we were all there to win, we were really nice to each other and we supported each other.”

The tournament concluded with single elimination competitions on Sunday for the gold and silver bracket. In a gold bracket semifinals competition, AJA played SAR, a match many players considered the tournament’s highlight. Ella described the match as highly anticipated, as it would decide whether SAR would advance to play its rival team Frisch in the gold bracket finale. Volleyball Coach John Metallo said it was the most “heavyweight” and “intense” match of the tournament, one he spent time preparing for by watching SAR play against other schools in earlier games. After around two hours and five sets of play, AJA ultimately lost, allowing SAR to advance and win the gold bracket, but only after pushing SAR through a long and close game.

This loss, however, did not quell the Jaguars’ spirits. “I think it just showed how our team can really come together and… play our strongest, work our best as a team, and unite when we need to,” said Leora. Despite their outcome, the team felt “proud” of their progress in making it to the semifinals match. 

The SAR match was not the end of AJA’s tournament experience. The Jaguars secured third place in a consolation match against Berman. Coach Metallo called the AJA team “the best communicators on the court,” saying he also appreciates their energy and dedication. Considering their performance in this year’s tournament, he said the team feels proud of their progress since attending the tournament at YULA last spring, where they lost to SAR by a larger margin. “We went from not being able to compete to it being a winnable game,” which Coach Metallo says reflects “tremendous growth for the girls in their focus and tenacity.”

Coach Metallo said he already heard from some junior members of the team who want to start planning its next steps. “The team is capable of accomplishing anything we set our mind to, wholeheartedly,” he said. “So the question is, what do we set our mind for? And then once that’s set, I have high hopes.” In addition to their regular season, Coach Metallo plans to look into other tournaments to join.

The team will certainly compete in next year’s Volleyball Invitational, which Coach Katz plans to organize again at AJA. Coach Katz has shifted gears in preparation for the upcoming football Spring Classic in late March. He hopes to develop both tournaments as annual events hosted at AJA. Atlanta’s central location, AJA’s campus, and the Toco Hills community make it “prime to offer” such tournaments, according to Coach Katz. “The plan is to build this volleyball tournament for future years, and make sure that Atlanta is known for their two Shabbatons a year,” Coach Katz said, “which is volleyball in the fall and flag football in the spring.”

Comments are closed.