Girls volleyball: Joliet West’s Piazza, Minooka’s Valentin lead Belusa to AAU national championship

Joliet West’s Gabby Piazza hits a shot against Lockport in the Class 4A Oswego Sectional championship on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023 in Oswego.

ORLANDO, Fla. – A new national champion has a local flavor.

That’s because Belusa, a volleyball club based in Romeoville, recently won the 18 Classic division at the AAU Girls Nationals in Orlando, Florida.

The Belusa team went 12-0, only losing one set in those 12 matches, en route to the championship. Joliet West’s Gabby Piazza was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, while Minooka’s Ava Valentin also was selected to the all-tournament team. Also appearing on the Belusa roster were Amanda and Samantha Bagdonaite and Emily McGraw of Lockport, Mia Andrle, Addison Ciesielski and Savannah Raymer of Minooka, and Sienna Smith of Oak Forest. They are coached by Nicole Diamond, who also is the Minooka varsity assistant coach.

On June 17, Belusa began tournament play with wins over MSVC Adidas, 25-14, 25-14, and Smak & Cheese, 25-8 ,25-15. In the second round June 18, Belusa beat Krewe of Kristi, 25-18, 25-20, thumped NUF Volleyball 18 Destiny, 25-4, 25-7 and beat SMBV, 25-6, 25-15.

Four matches came Wednesday, and Belusa won all of them, topping TX Legends 18 Black, 25-17, 25-10, beating Point Break 18-1, 25-11, 25-16, defeating Sumter VBC 18 Gray, 25-21, 25-17 and tripping AVA 18 Coral, 25-20, 25-13. On the tournament’s final day, Belusa scored a 25-18, 25-15 win over Balance 18 White in the quarterfinals, topped Vipers 18 Gold Elite 19-25, 25-16, 15-12 in the semifinals and beat TPV 18 Renegade 25-18, 25-22 in the title match.

“It was really exciting,” Diamond said. “We are a definitely a small club. We only have nine teams. Some of the clubs there are just massive and when we went into the finals people were asking us, ‘Who are you?’

“We’ve had a really good last two years. We went 66-15 last year and used that experience. We finished 69-15 this year, won a big tournament at Navy Pier and then this one.”

Piazza was a key member of this season’s Joliet West team that advanced to a Class 4A supersectional for the first time in school history, earning All-Southwest Prairie Conference and Herald-News All-Area honors as an outside hitter.

“We did some team culture things at Joliet West that I tried to bring to the club,” Piazza said. “All the girls on the team are so smart and their volleyball IQ is so high that we didn’t really need to talk about wanting to win. It was just the energy that I brought and they fed off it. Eventually we all fit together.

“We thought we would be competitive, but we didn’t think we would be wiping out teams the way we did. We really played as a team and didn’t stress the small stuff. As a smaller club we are a little closer, and everyone was able to step right into their roles.”

Minooka's Ava Valentin sets the ball during a conference game against Romeoville on Tuesday, Oct. 03, 2023, at Minooka. (Dean Reid for Shaw Local News Network)

Valentin was an All-Southwest Prairie Conference selection for the Indians as a setter, and she was the setter for Belusa as well.

“It was really cool to win this tournament,” Valentin said. “It wasn’t what a lot of people were expecting. We only had nine players on our team, and people were asking us where we were from.

“The biggest win for us was at the end of Day 3. We won our challenge match, which got us into the Gold Bracket. We lost in the challenge match last year, so when we won it this year, we went into Day 4 with the mindset that we could win the whole thing. We wanted to show everyone there that this little club from Romeoville, Illinois could play with anybody.”