The Redbird Classic followed by the Alton Invitational — it’s the two volleyball tournaments that kick start the season for the Alton girls’ volleyball team, both inside the friendly confines of the AHS gym.
Since 2007 those tournaments have been there at the beginning of the season. The Redbird Classic began in ‘07, while the Alton Invitational dates back to 1994. The Birds played 10 matches over two weekends in the two tournaments this season.
Alton enjoyed the championship of the Redbird Classic but finished third in the Alton Invite, behind champion Fort Zumwalt North and runner-up Roxana. The Redbirds won both last season.
“It’s nice that we’re hosting these tournaments. We’re here, it’s our gym, we get the comfort of home, but it’s something I evaluate because it’s back to back and a lot of matches in a short amount of time,” AHS head coach Stacey Ferguson said. She’s been at the helm of the program since 2009. “Sometimes I feel like we get a comfort level setting in because we are at home.”
The Redbirds went 7-3 in the two tournaments this season, 5-0 at the Redbird Classic and 2-3 at the Alton Invite. After a win over Cahokia on Monday, AHS owned a 10-5 record on the young season.
The fields of the two tournaments include: Gillespie, Triad, Southwestern, Granite City, Orchard Farm, Roxana, Carrollton, Fort Zumwalt North, Jersey and Civic Memorial. Of those teams only Granite City is a Class 4A program like Alton.
While it’s good competition for the Redbirds and gets them an opportunity for some early wins, it makes it hard to prepare for the rugged Southwestern Conference schedule. Ferguson added the Highland Tournament last season, which the Birds will compete in again this year, to see some larger programs.
“That’s why I liked Highland because they had a mix,” Ferguson said. “A couple of our conference schools, O’Fallon and East St. Louis, were in there last year. Playing some of those schools that are going to be good competition for us, that’s what we need to be doing to push us and make us be our best so that we can compete in our conference.”
For Roxana coach Mike McKinney, finishing second and beating programs out of the field at the Alton Invitational was highly beneficial. The Shells are cast in 3A come playoff time and could see teams like CM and Jersey again.
Taylor Westfall and Braeden Lackey were both named to the all-tournament team for Roxana.
“This is a great way to find out where we’re at, what we need to work on,” McKinney said. “I think we played excellent all five matches. Playing against good teams can only make you better and I think the effort we gave this whole tournament — winning four matches — our girls are excited. You want to win the championship, but when you come in and play these teams, you can go 0-5. We found a way to win four and I’m ecstatic for them; they’re ecstatic and hopefully we build off that for the rest of the season.”
Winning definitely builds confidence and helps grow a program. The Redbirds have enjoyed that in recent history. They won 21 games in 2015 and a team record 25 in 2014. The two tourneys in Alton have been competitive, but still allowed the Birds to stack up some wins, and a little bit of recognition is always nice.
Junior setter Sydney Schmidt was the MVP of the Redbird Classic, while Savannah Fisher and Annie Evans were all-tournament picks. Katie Mans and Saddi Brands were all-tournament performers at the Alton Invitational.
“All the teams that come to the (Alton Invite) are pretty evenly matched across the board,” Ferguson said. “They all come in and they all want to beat us in this one. Being a 4A school, we’re the school that everyone wants to beat and when we get comfortable and they come in fired up, sometimes that doesn’t bode well for us.”
But in the end Ferguson understands it’s tough to compete in the SWC, so the possibility of breaking up the two early season home tournaments could be an option. It could lead to the Redbirds looking for a bigger stage later in the season to add some valuable experience outside the friendly confines of AHS.
The Birds are looking to improve upon their league standings. They were 3-4 and 2-5 in the SWC over the last two seasons. Alton is also still searching for its first regional crown in school history.
“I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of years, about taking some of the teams and combining them from the two tournaments,” Ferguson said. “I like the teams we play in both of them; it’s good competition. Maybe we can do a combined, bigger tournament with a different style, not a round robin. We need to look at weekends that will work so we’re not doing his heavy 10-match stretch in about a week.
“We had such a top-heavy season where we played so many of our matches at the beginning, and then toward the end when we’re getting into those tougher matches and getting into our postseason play our games were spread out too much. We did pick up the Highland Tournament, but that’s my plan, to reevaluate our schedule a little bit and see what adjustments we can make.”
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