Last year, four bay area teams survived an arduous regular-season schedule and do-or-die region playoff games to advance to the state semifinals at the Lakeland Center. Once again, Tampa Bay is well-stocked with superstar athletes and championship-caliber teams. Plant and Berkeley Prep appear as strong as ever; beyond those two, the picture is a bit less focused. With that in mind, here's our first Dandy Dozen installment for the 2009 season.
New district: 6A-8; Old district: 5A-10
Outlook: The only team in the bay area to win a state title last year, Plant has earned the right to open the 2009 season in the top spot. The Panthers are trying to win a fourth-straight state championship, which would be a first for the volleyball powerhouse. They have the firepower to do so with Maddie Martin, Becca Howard (left) and Ali McCurdy all returning for their senior seasons.
2. Berkeley Prep
New district: 3A-10; Old district: 3A-11
Outlook: Not much separates the first two teams; Berkeley Prep was the only Florida school to defeat Plant last season. Berkeley’s talented trio of timbers – OH Jordan Burgess (6-foot), MB Lindsay Young (6-foot-1) and S MacKenzie Dagostino (5-foot-10) – will try to lead the Buccaneers to a 13th state title. They currently have 12, which ranks second in the bay area behind Tampa Prep’s 15.
3. Palm Harbor University
New district: 6A-7; Old district: 5A-9
Outlook: Seniors Cassie Wilkinson and Cassie Roy, a Mercer University commit, lead a loaded PHU squad. The Hurricanes went 24-4 last season, but were swept in three games by Plant in the region semifinals. The Panthers remain in the same region, so the Hurricanes will have to find a way to narrow that gap if they hope to advance deeper into the playoffs.
New district: 6A-8; Old district: 5A-8
Outlook: With its move up to Class 6A, Brandon gets a reprieve from a playoff meeting with Lake Howell, which has defeated the Eagles in the region finals each of the last two seasons. On the flip side, Brandon is now stuck in the same district with Plant. Not exactly the tradeoff the Eagles were looking for.
5. East Lake
New district: 5A-11; Old district: 5A-9
Outlook: Head coach Terry Small says this is his best team at East Lake since his 2002 squad that finished as the state runner up (Class 5A), and it’s easy to understand Small’s enthusiasm. The Eagles are led by senior libero Andria Tagarelli, who is a four-year starter, and 6-foot middles Lauren Eschenroeder and Brianna McComeskey. A talented group of sophomores gained valuable experience playing quality minutes for the district runnerup Eagles last season.
6. Tampa Prep
New district: 2A-10; Old district: 2A-9
Outlook: Tampa Prep graduated its leader in kills (Alena Ransom), digs (Anna Dalence) and blocks (Dana Malinowski) from a 2008 squad that entered the playoffs with a losing record (12-13) before advancing to the state semifinals. The Terrapins will have to reload, but they have an exciting duo in Caroline Dillabough and Erika McGriff to build around.
7. Northside Christian
District: 2A-11 (no change)
Outlook: Northside Christian advanced to the region finals in 2008, despite losing Kayla Walton halfway through the season to a knee injury. The Mustangs held a 2-games-to-0 lead over Tampa Prep in the region final, but couldn’t close out the Terrapins in a 3-2 defeat. With Walton returning to form and a rapidly improving Jennica Mullins patrolling the middle, the Mustangs are hoping to avenge that heartbreaking loss.
New district: 5A-11; Old district: 5A-9
Outlook: If the Tornadoes were a stock, the smart move would be to buy. Clearwater missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001 but returns a gifted group of players. Senior Carey Froelicher is a steadying presence in the middle, and Dixon called sophomore left side hitter Nikki O’Rourke “a key to our success.” Junior setter Kahley Patrick returns to quarterback the team. River Ridge standout middle Leah Mitchell transferred to Clearwater for her senior year.
District: 6A-7 (no change)
Outlook: Countryside might have the most questions out of all 12 teams in the Dandy Dozen. On one hand, the Cougars have Pinellas Player of the Year candidate Davionna DiSalvatore in their arsenal and an experienced setter in junior Sara Wright. But it’s hard to predict just how much the graduation of Madison Truluck will set the Cougars back. Truluck was the best player in Pinellas last year, by a sizable margin.
New district: 4A-7; Old district: 4A-8
Outlook: Sweet situation for first-year coach Shayna Munson to find herself in: Hudson returns all starters but one from a team that went 21-8 in 2008 and advanced to the region semifinals. Seniors Shannon Zasloff and Katy McGee give the Cobras two big-time playmakers in the middle. Hudson better take advantage of this season: most of, if not all of the Cobras’ starters are seniors.
11. Bayshore Christian
New district: A-8; Old district: A-10
Outlook: The beat goes on at Bayshore Christian, where the Faith Warriors have advanced to the region finals every year since 2003. With junior Gabby Fernandez back, expect that streak to continue in 2009. Also expect to see a Spalding ball mark tattooed on the forehead of any hapless defender who gets in the way of a Fernandez kill.
12. Nature Coast Tech
District: 4A-8 (no change)
Outlook: The Sharks have a strong nucleus in seniors Rachel Powell and Alex Livengood and sophomore Courtney Liddle, but a number of untested youngsters will have to fill in to compensate for the losses of Kayla Bailey and Randi Roppolo. Livengood is the reigning Player of the Year on the North Suncoast.
--- BRYAN BURNS