TAMPA — Randy Dagostino returned from a summer volleyball trip to Wisconsin and had a revelation.
In July, a few weeks before his 27th season as Berkeley Prep coach, Dagostino attended the USA Volleyball High Performance Championships, where his top hitter, Bucs junior Jordan Burgess, and his son, Kyle, were playing.
After watching the frenetic pace of the matches, he came home bent on the fact that the key to success for this year’s Berkeley team would be in its speed.
The critical part would be teaching his daughter, junior setter Mackenzie, the technique of quick setting to her outside hitters, which he implemented immediately.
“When we came back from that Wisconsin tournament, we had my wife, my son, my daughter and I, at least a couple dozen sessions in the driveway of our house,” Dagostino said.
As Berkeley Prep goes for its 14th state title — all under Dagostino — in this week’s state tournament, Dagostino doesn’t hesitate to say this Bucs team is the fastest he’s ever had.
“By far,” he said.
Berkeley Prep (28-2) is ranked No. 1 in the state according to MaxPreps and hasn’t lost a match to a Florida team. The Bucs’ losses came to Louisville Mercy and Louisville Assumption in tournament play.
The Bucs’ opponent in tonight’s Class 3A semifinal, Orlando Bishop Moore, is one of the few teams to take Berkeley to four games. While the Hornets (26-4) posses a formidable front row — they have three players 6-1 or taller — Berkeley was able to beat them with speed.
“We’re still trying to perfect it,” said Burgess, a junior who was last year’s 3A player of the year. “It helps us running a faster offense. It makes us a lot more competitive, especially with beating blocks and stuff.”
Quick sets are often geared toward the middle, but the Bucs’ ability to set the ball quickly to their outside hitters forces opposing blockers to either play a guessing game or leave early.
In the beginning of the season, opponents did the latter, with blockers focusing on Burgess, but Mackenzie Dagostino could read the blocks and feed senior outside hitter Amber Mirabello, who has blossomed in the new offense.
But the catalyst is Mackenzie Dagostino, who has already committed to Maryland.
“If before her set to the outside took two seconds, now it’s like 1.3 seconds,” Randy Dagostino said. “And when you have hitters like Jordan and Amber, who are very explosive, quick jumpers, it just plays right into their strengths as an athlete.”
At first, the game plan also compensated for having young, inexperienced middle hitters, but now freshman Addison Harden and sophomore Jessica Silva have a season of experience and have gradually become a larger part of the offense.
On the court, it’s a much different look than last year’s state title team. And one that the Bucs hope ends with title No. 14.
“At first we were watching clips from club season, and it looked like the sets were hitting the ceiling after what we’ve been running now,” Mackenzie said. “You really catch the blockers off guard. They really don’t know what to do.”
A look at the other Hillsborough County teams in the state tournament:
Plant (22-6) is making a run for a fifth straight state title with a much different cast than the one that won the first four. They took some time to jell, and missed key players early due to injury, but like all Leanna Taylor-coached teams, they are playing their best volleyball in November.
The Panthers haven’t dropped a game in five postseason matches, and haven’t lost a game since Sept. 28 in a four-game win over Tampa Prep. All six of Plant’s losses came in September tournament play in the GatorTown Classic and Berkeley Premier. Since then, the Panthers have been just short of unstoppable. Senior outside hitter Alex Johnson is averaging 16 kills and 11.6 digs in the postseason, and fellow senior Tina Catanach is averaging 14.4 kills and 11.2 digs. Libero Charlotte Hill is averaging 20.8 digs a match in the postseason.
Tampa Prep (13-15) has won a county-high 15 state titles, but none since 2004. This is the Terps’ third straight state tournament appearance. They lost to Orlando First Academy in last year’s championship match in three games. They face the same team in tonight’s state semifinal. First Academy is playing for its third straight 2A title. The Terps needed five games to win its last two region tournament matches, including Saturday’s win at Fort Myers Evangelical Christian.
Senior outside hitter Gabby Fernandez enters the state tournament with 1,300 career kills and can win her second state title (She was a freshman on Bayshore Christian’s 2007 Class A title team). Fernandez, who signed with Florida Southern this week, led the Terps with 19 kills against Evangelical Christian, but also had a season-high 11 attack errors. Senior Ericka McGriff averaged 15.3 kills and sophomore middle hitter Katie Krueger averaged 11.3 kills and 2.0 solo blocks in the region tournament.
State volleyball tournament schedule
Class 3A semifinal
Orlando Bishop Moore (26-4) vs. Berkeley Prep (28-2), 6 p.m.
Class 2A semifinal
Orlando First Academy (24-4) vs. Tampa Prep (13-15), 8 p.m.
Class 2A championship, 4:30 p.m.
Class 3A championship, 7 p.m.
Class 6A semifinal
Plant (22-6) vs. Parkland Douglas (24-2), 2 p.m.
Class 6A championship, 5 p.m.