Ignite Elite 17 volleyball champions

The Ignite Elite 17 club volleyball team won the Nike Mideast Qualifier to reach the national tournament that begins in June. The team players are. front row from left, Meagan Fitzgerald, left, Madalyn Maatman, Bella Kuechenberg, Alyssa Hill and Gina Novotny; and back row, Erik Kuechenberg (assistant coach), left, Tina Tinberg (head coach), Rachel Bontrager, Abby Armold, Reece Kral, Jelena Rowe, Alyssa Chronowski, Brittany Anderson, Chris Tinberg (assistant coach) and Michelle Thompson (director).

CROWN POINT — Shoulders ached, ankles throbbed and cheeks blushed.

Cheers and rhythmic claps from dispatched opponents and program affiliates echoed in the Indiana Convention Center for the last point of the last game of the last match of a grueling three-day event that drew teams from all over the Midwest.

Alyssa Chronowski and Abby Armold slid in for a block at the net. The volleyball thudded to the court. Exhaustion gave way to a blur of bedlam. History was made.

Ignite Elite 17U, a club volleyball team based out of Crown Point and the home to several region superstars, went 10-0 to win the Nike Mideast Qualifier March 18-20 in Indianapolis, earning an automatic berth in the USA Volleyball Girls Junior Nationals June 29 through July 2 back in Indianapolis.

“That play was very scary because I had one go through my hands earlier, and I cried,” Chronowski said. “That Sunday we knew we could do this and knew we had the skill.”

Said Armold, “I’ll never forget that moment. We were stuck in it.”

The block by Chronowski and Armold gave Ignite the comeback 23-25, 25-19, 17-15 win over an Ohio Valley Region team (Ignite and other Indiana teams are considered the Hoosier Region). In the semifinal match Ignite dispatched a Cleveland team that had ruined their weekend last year at the same event and sent them to a consolation bracket.

Armold (Valparaiso) is a three-year veteran of Ignite, while Chronowski (Munster) is one of several newcomers giving Ignite Elite (42-10 overall) the pieces to ascend to a ranking of No. 19 in the nation among all 2,410 teams in the 17-and-under division.

There are other ways to qualify for USAV nationals in its multiple levels of competitiveness, but winning a true national qualifier at the USA Division is a first.

“You have to be almost picture perfect for three days,” coach Tina Tinberg said. “You can’t have any illness or injury, and you can’t afford to have any bad matches, especially the second and third days. In best-of-three you can never afford slow starts or lost momentum.”

In 2012 Ignite Elite Volleyball broke off from another local organization and was on two courts fielding five teams at the former Fuel Fitness (now Spark Fitness) on Main Street in Crown Point.

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Now program director Michelle Thompson, a prep coaching veteran whose career includes stops at Hanover Central and Lake Central, boasts 12 teams in ages ranging from 13-18, and 10 of those teams travel about every other weekend. The youth academy created last fall starts a new session Sunday and already has 77 children in grades K-8 participating.

They have four practice courts laid tile by tile over an old synthetic grass surface for soccer, baseball and softball at Spark.

The pillars of the program’s flagship team, Elite 17U, are captains Bella Kuechenberg (Bishop Noll) and consensus region player of the year Rachel Bontrager (Valparaiso).

“Sometimes I feel like this is a dream,” Bontrager said. “Like, is this really my team?”

Both have already made Division I commitments — Kuechenberg to Florida International for sand volleyball and Bontrager to Western Michigan — and have been playing club ball together for Tinberg since they were 10, moving to Ignite at 14 and winning a national berth at a different competition level than they are on now.

“We’re basically a family, and it’s always fun,” Kuechenberg said.

Last season the team advanced to nationals in New Orleans via a qualifier from the Hoosier Region, and Kuechenberg successfully sang “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” from 99 down to zero with Bontrager annoyed the entire time on the drive down.

At that tournament, Ignite was down 13-7 in a decisive third game (all club matches are best-of-three) and stormed back to win 15-13 and eventually tied for fifth in the nation in the National Division.

“All of this is so exciting,” Bontrager said. “There is so much good competition in USA Volleyball. Every team is good enough to take any match from you at any time.”

Chronowski is committed to Michigan State, setter Brittany Anderson (Bishop Noll), also a newcomer to Ignite, has verballed to James Madison for softball, and Jelena Rowe (Bloom Trail) is among several Ignite players being highly recruited, though Rowe is also a Division I-caliber high jumper.

“I’m just so proud of all they’ve accomplished and the way they gel and work together as a unit,” said Tinberg, Lake Central’s coach during the prep season. “These girls are focused on the motto ‘be your best self,’ and that’s really important. They’re all top players in our area, and they want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”