MORE from our HomeTeam writers.
With the postseason less than two weeks away — district tournaments begin Oct. 25 — parity reigns on the North Suncoast, where no team has established itself as the area’s clear cut No. 1. Initially, Land O’Lakes, which won its first 13 matches, was the premier team, until the Gators were knocked off by Hernando in the Fivay Invitational, then by Nature Coast the following week. Springstead took over the top spot, but the Eagles were clipped by Nature Coast on Monday. That leaves Nature Coast as the flavor of the week, but in this year’s volleyball climate, even the Sharks aren’t safe.
Take a peak at the teams and players that have been garnering attention in a mixed-up volleyball season.
Springstead had one major injury to deal with when junior Carly Wiggins was injured in a non-volleyball accident and missed a handful of matches.
Now the Eagles face the absence of a second starter after junior Megan Morrison severely sprained her ankle in the first game of their loss to Nature Coast on Monday.
Morrison, who leads the team in kills and aces, could be out up to four weeks and will not be available for the 5A-7 district tournament, according to Springstead coach Darcy Hinton said.
“We don’t know if it’s going to be two weeks or four weeks,” Hinton said. “She’s going to need at least a week on crutches.”
Wiggins, meanwhile, had a table collapse on the back of her calf, causing some internal bleeding and resulting in a huge knot.
Wiggins was in the Eagles’ lineup Tuesday against Ocala Forest for the first time since the accident and didn’t complain of any pain after playing all four games.
“We’ve never been a team with superstars. Everybody is always of equal value,” Hinton said. “We expect that our other kids will be able to step up with their leadership skills and carry the team.”
The number of teams capable of knocking off higher seeds at districts should make for an interesting tournament week. Already this season, we’ve seen Hernando, which has hovered around .500 all year, defeat Land O’Lakes. Gulf, another team around .500, swept
Hudson rather easily in its third match of the season. And Wiregrass Ranch was embarrassed Sept. 20 by Central, which has won just five matches all year.
Our picks for underdogs most likely to surprise at districts:
1. Hernando: The Leopards, who finished second at the Fivay Invitational, might be the most schizophrenic team in the field. They dropped six of their first nine matches but have played well of late, despite loses in their past two matches.
2. Zephyrhills: The Bulldogs have a roster filled with solid players but are lacking that one bonafide star to push them over the hump. Still, nobody will have his team more prepared for the playoffs than coach Dan Muir. And the Bulldogs are one of the scrappiest teams around.
3. River Ridge: The Knights play a tough match every time they step onto the court. Of River Ridge’s 11 matches, just three have been decided in three games. The Knights took Land O’Lakes and Hudson to four games — they also needed four games to beat Gulf and Pasco —and are on a four-match win streak.
4. Fivay: It took a bit of coaxing from first-year coach Linda McQuade, but the Falcons are pointed in the right direction. Fivay only has three wins this season, but has won two of its last three. The Falcons have also taken games off of Hudson, Springstead and Wiregrass Ranch.
North Suncoast MVP candidates
In alphabetical order
Teresa Della Penna, Jr., Land O’Lakes: The rare setter who can also attack, Della Penna, despite being slowed by a leg injury much of the year, leads in kills, aces and assists for a star-studded Gators lineup.
Jessica Johnson, Bishop McLaughlin: A transfer from Land O’Lakes, Johnson has the pedigree to develop into one of the best players the North Suncoast has ever produced. Playing for an up-and-coming Hurricanes program, Johnson leads the county in aces and is second in kills.
Courtney Liddle, Jr., Nature Coast: A ferocious attacker with the all-around game to match, Liddle is automatic if set properly. Whenever Nature Coast needs a point, Liddle, the top attacker in the county, is the Sharks’ go-to girl.
Megan Morrison, Jr., Springstead: The Eagles leader for kills and aces, Morrison has engineered the turnaround at Springstead, which is looking for its first trip to the postseason. Her injury, however, could derail those hopes.
Four to watch
Players who don’t grab headlines but are just as important to their teams’ success.
Michelle Doucet, Jr., Nature Coast: Doucet does everything well. Her serve gives receivers fits. Her block is difficult for an attacker to maneuver around. And she adds power and accuracy on her kills.
Kaylee Gaskin, Sr, Zephyrhills: An intelligent attacker who plays with grit and determination, Gaskin is the leader of a Bulldogs squad that will be a dangerous draw for any district tournament opponent.
Tori Quaglia, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch: One of the county’s tallest players, Quaglia can jump out of the gym and puts those skills to use at the net as an attacker and a blocker. Whenever she’s in the match, good things seem to follow for the Bulls.
Nicole Woodward, Sr., Land O’Lakes: Plays tentative at times, but, when assertive, she’s one of the best around. Woodward is an intimidating blocker for Land O’Lakes who’s also a viable third option in the Gators’ attack behind Della Penna and Morgan Crescent.