When East Lake put the finishing touches on a Class 8A state championship over Miami Wellington in November, it marked the first time a Pinellas County team had won consecutive state titles. Over the past two seasons, the Eagles are 56-3.
Optimism remains high despite the loss of six seniors, including setter Rachel Reed and outside hitter Brittnay Estes, the Tampa Bay Times’ co-players of the year.
“I still think we’re going to be pretty strong,” coach Mike Estes said. “Some of the girls who were in the shadows last year are ready to step up.”
But lurking is neighborhood rival Palm Harbor University. Stuck in the same district with East Lake, the Hurricanes were an above-average team last season forced to get past a great East Lake team.
They played each other five times in 2011, and East Lake won every match. This season, the Hurricanes have three key returners and three others with varsity experience who could make it difficult for East Lake to win a district title, let alone a state title.
“It was difficult last year playing them five times and not having success against them any of the five times,” PHU coach Tara Kuk said. “I don’t see us having those results again. I don’t really know much about (East Lake) because we haven’t seen many of those players. It’s going to be a completely different team.”
PHU, which was 21-8 last season, returns senior captains Lee Nielsen, Abbey Bouchard and Logan Miller. Nielsen, the outside hitter, will be relied on for kills and digs. Bouchard returns as setter and will run the offense. Middle hitter Miller is the blocking specialist.
Three others, seniors Randi Dawson and Mackenzie Shivley, as well as sophomore defensive specialist Ameje Ismaili, give PHU enough experience to challenge East Lake.
“I think every year we know we can compete against them,” Kuk said. “My goal every year is not to beat East Lake, it’s just going as far in the playoffs as possible. Of course, that means beating East Lake, but …”
Don’t think East Lake hasn’t heard about PHU. Most of the players know each other from club teams. They know the Hurricanes should be good, but they aren’t ready to concede.
Outside hitter Mary Gillis, setter Christy Dunham, libero and outside hitter Brooke Burkett, defensive specialist/outside hitter Jessica Steidl and middle hitter Shelby Younger have game experience.
“I think we’re going to be solid,” Estes said. “The kids are coming in with a chip on their shoulders. Even though we graduated a ton of talent, they want to show that they’re just as talented. They figure everyone is going to be taking them lightly this year and they want to prove them wrong.
“They think this is the year they can beat East Lake. It might be, but the kids want the same recognition as the team got last year. This team is not far from that.”
Players to watch
Sr. MH Ashlyn MacGregor, Tarpon Springs: Had 423 kills last season as a 6-foot-2 force at the net. “She has a chance to be a really good player for us,” coach Patrick Sneed said.
Sr. S Ashley Llerena, Indian Rocks Christian: Set a school record with 894 assists. The IRC offense runs through her.
Sr. MH Logan Miller, Palm Harbor University: At 6-3, may be one of the taller players in the area. Also the most experienced player for the Hurricanes.
Sr. Lib/OH Brooke Burkett, East Lake: A versatile player who has been part of consecutive state championships.
Sr. Lib Rachel Miller, Clearwater Central Catholic: Led the Marauders in digs last season and coach Stephen Shepherd calls her the best passer in the county.
Preseason Super Seven
1. East Lake: Until proven otherwise, the two-time state champ gets the top of the poll.
2. Palm Harbor University: In the same district as East Lake, PHU is ready to make a move.
3. Tarpon Springs: Advanced to the Class 6A semifinals last season; there is talent returning.
4. Clearwater Central Catholic: Lots of talent back on a team that advanced to the region final.
5. Indian Rocks Christian: The Golden Eagles lost five seniors, but three starters return and they should challenge CCC.
6. Northeast: Six seniors return for the Vikings, who coach Brian Nowokunski believes are district contenders.
7. Canterbury: The Crusaders won 20 games last season and could be strong enough to do it again.
Season: Regular-season games begin Monday. The last regular-season game can be played Oct. 20. District tournaments begin Oct. 22. Region quarterfinals are Oct. 30-31; semifinals Nov. 6 and finals Nov. 10. The state tournament for all classes is Nov. 13-17 at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
Must-see games/tournaments: Aug. 30 — Tarpon Springs at Palm Harbor U.; Sept. 6 — East Lake at PHU; Sept. 6-8 — Keswick Invitational; Sept. 14-16 — Calvary Christian Invitational; Sept. 21-22 — Berkeley Prep Premier; Oct. 9 — Indian Rocks Chr. at CCC; Oct. 12-13 — Mustang Invitational at Northside Christian; Oct. 17 — PCAC championship; Oct. 18 — Bay Conference championship
Rodney Page can be reached at email@example.com.