This is the eighth of 10 stories about the best Long Beach youth sports teams we’ve seen over the last decade. We’ve taken nominations from the community and will release the top 10 in no particular order. Come back next week to read about other club squads that made this historic list.
Two years ago, local volleyball fans started to take notice of a special group of girls at Long Beach Mizuno Volleyball Club when they won the Girls Junior National Championships 12-year-old title. Their future 13s coach wasn’t among the admirers.
“Truthfully I never really had a chance to watch them,” coach Lance Aoki said of the team he took over last year. “I kind of like it that way. It keeps me open-minded to see the players’ skills and I have no predeterminations of the position they might play.”
The approach paid off. Aoki was able to add to their skill set and the same group won the 13s national championship in Indianapolis, Ind., last year. The squad made up mostly of students from Hughes, Stanford and Rogers middle schools became the first Mizuno team to repeat as national champions.
The title run started two years ago under coach Tiffany Rodriguez. Mizuno went 10-1 while sweeping all three elimination games, including a 27-25, 25-19 win over ASICS Mavs in the title match.
“At first they were really goofy (in practice), but I didn’t mind because they all shared a passion for volleyball,” Aoki said of when he took over. “I could see their competitiveness in their demeanor.”
“I was really excited to get back out there and try to win again, but the first tournament, I was really nervous,” outside hitter Kaia Herweg said. “We didn’t do very well so we just kept working hard and got ready for (national competition) and we just outworked them.”
That dedication and championship pedigree is becoming typical at Mizuno, and this is actually the second team from the club honored on our Top Youth Teams list.
Long Beach State women’s volleyball coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer and her husband, Matt, run their program in a unique way where the coaches stay at an age group and get a new team every year. Mizuno has more than 30 national championship medals across all age groups. Last year, six Mizuno teams finished top 10 at the GJNC where the top 68 teams in each age group from around the country meet every year.
Aoki was one of the first coaches hired when McKienzie-Fuerbringer started the club in 1995, and he has an important job when it comes to player development. The jump from 12s to 13s is more difficult than most because that’s the age when strategies and systems develop. Aoki said he was impressed with how quickly this team picked up on things like incorporating a back row attack and moving the setters around the outside hitters instead of just the middle.
“It wasn’t as hard because we have an amazing blocker in Ayden Ames,” Herweg said. “She covered the whole middle so we just didn’t have to go there.”
They also have two very competitive and intelligent setters in Sade Ilawole and Charlie Fuerbringer, who is the daughter of Joy and Matt. Aoki was pleased to see his club bosses being, “Great fans as mom and dad who supported,” Charlie during her matches.
“That team didn’t really show stress,” Aoki said. “They played with composure and just kept competing because we taught them not to worry. If they hit one out of bounds, I’d tell them to hit it harder so they get in their system that it’s okay to make mistakes.”
The Mizuno 13s took their lumps against older competition early last year, and ended up gaining confidence by hanging with some of the best teams in the nation. That prepared them better for the GJNC a few months later, where they met up with an old rival. Dynasty Volleyball from Kansas City had beaten Mizuno earlier in the season, but the Long Beach girls won an epic pool play match by taking the third and final set 21-19.
Mizuno used that experience to survive six different three-set matches of the 10 they played at GJNC that week, and once again had to face Dynasty in the national championship match.
“We played our best in the final,” Herweg said. “We just wanted to crush them. It was harder but I think we were humbled when we lost to them, and then we just played with a lot more confidence after we beat them.”
“As a parent, it’s one of the coolest things to watch your kid play against the top talent in the country,” Herweg’s dad Greg said. “You travel a lot with your kid in this volleyball world. You go to Spokane, Dallas and Kansas City. You see the best of the best. You see the best college coaches recruiting the older kids, but if you’re in the semifinals or finals they’re watching your kid. When I was playing Little League we played everyone in a 50-mile radius. This is just on a different scale.”
Greg was also one of the parents who would film their matches and the future competition for Aoki and his assistant coaches. He said that Aoki made a few key changes late in the season to make sure his girls stayed one step ahead of its opponents.
“I also had great assistant coaches Alicia Nelson and Fayth Rascon-Ryn,” Aoki said. “(Nelson) and I coached the first 14s gold medal team in 2008, so we kind of got her out of retirement for this team. She was a great mother figure for the girls to confide in. She’d always hold the girls rings during games and have cough drops in her bag. She was great.”
Obviously the COVID-19 shutdowns stopped this Mizuno squad from trying to three-peat as national champions, but local fans will still get a chance to see Herweg, Haile McGinest and Taylor Mercado play together at Long Beach Poly High School, where they’re all freshman this year.
Front row (L-R): Summer Suppik, Taylor Mercado, Lindsey Du
Middle row (L-R): Sade Ilawole, Erin Inskeep, Charlie Fuerbringer, Isabella Jeffery, Kaia Herweg, Halie McGinest, Malyssa Cawa
Back row (L-R): Assistant coach Alicia Nelson, assistant coach Fayth Rascon-Ryn, Gabriella Gubbins, Ayden Ames, head coach Lance Aoki