BROOKSVILLE — Nature Coast’s volleyball coach was wrapping up JV practice this week when Mama Skinner opened her mouth from across the gym.
“All right, ladies,” Skinner yelled to her varsity teammates. “You ready?”
And with those words from senior Courtney Skinner, the young Sharks began training for their daunting task: Winning a fourth consecutive district championship with a team that returns only two players from a squad that has advanced to consecutive region finals.
If Nature Coast can continue to build as the North Suncoast’s top program, Skinner will be the reason.
“There’s always been someone in front of her, every year,” coach Emily Gore said. “Now this is her year.”
It has to be. Nature Coast’s 25-3 team graduated Tulane-bound star Courtney Liddle and three other college recruits. It also lost another senior and two other starters who left the program.
That leaves two returning varsity players — Skinner and senior Melissa Berger.
“I’ve seen Nature Coast at its absolute worst my freshman year, and I’ve seen it at its absolute best,” Skinner said. “I look at these girls. I have the opportunity to change that. I would do anything.”
The Sharks will have to make plenty of adjustments this year on an inexperienced roster that averages 5 feet 4. Instead of relying on the power of two 5-11 hitters, they’ll have to play smarter and serve better.
Nature Coast doesn’t have its most talented team, but it does have its tightest one. The core of last year’s lineup played together on the same high school and club teams. The environment, Skinner said, grew stale.
This year’s team is more fun but just as fierce. Its nucleus grew as friends on the JV team last year, and they’re becoming a varsity family.
“When we get on the court, we don’t have to pretend we’re a team,” Brittney Rodriguez said. “When we get on the court, we’re still friends.”
The younger players, including juniors Zavana Schmit and Brittney Traudt, quickly accepted Berger and Skinner into their circle.
The varsity newcomers have nicknamed their leader “Mama Skinner” because of her nurturing leadership. It helps that she’s also one of the county’s top talents, earning honorable mention all-North Suncoast honors by recording 66 aces and a team-best 353 digs as a junior.
“Oh my gosh, she’s such a good player all around,” Danielle Amir said. “She makes me want to push harder.”
Skinner has had no problems adopting the team’s youngsters, either.
After deferring to varsity veterans for the past three years, she has taken over the team while switching from libero to outside hitter. She started warmups at practice this week and does everything from dishing out praise to figuring out where the sports cream went.
“I look at these girls like these are my babies,” Skinner said.
Whether Nature Coast can secure Skinner’s fourth district title in four seasons and remain atop the North Suncoast depends on how quickly her babies grow up.
Teams to watch
Zephyrhills: The Bulldogs used a senior-heavy roster to push their way to the Class 5A, District 8 title and a trip to the region semifinals last year. Zephyrhills loses five starters, so Rachel Osborne, Tori Jordan, Jessica Geiger and others will be expected to lead the rebuilding process.
Weeki Wachee: The young school has a squad with some experience, including seniors Danielle Burke and Halie Werkmeister and junior Sarah Robinson. But expect the Green Hornets to use 2012 as another year to build for the future.
Academy at the Lakes: The Wildcats are inexperienced and raw but have some talent. Seniors Rachel Allen and Maria Aumaitre are among the top players for new coach Brian Gonzales, who expects Academy at the Lakes to make a run at the school’s first district championship.
Springstead: The Eagles are starting over after their best season in school history ended with a district title and a run to the region semifinals. Now they’ll try to do it again without their top players, recent graduates Megan Morrison and Zoe Mannino.
Players to watch
Alyssa Mathis, So., Bishop McLaughlin: The 6-foot middle hitter will try to fill the void left by Norfolk State signee Jessica Johnson. Mathis is already receiving interest from Division I colleges and, along with Casey McColl, Laura Vien and others, will lead a team fresh off of its best season in school history.
Grace Olsen, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch: The outside hitter led the Bulls with 150 kills during her sophomore season. She should have a big 2012 campaign on a competitive team that includes senior Yarah Lugo and junior setter Teddi Wright.
Amanda Hickok, Sr., Land O’Lakes: The setter/outside hitter didn’t stand out in any statistical category last year, but she was among the Gators’ leaders in serving percentage, kills and assists.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.