Clearwater Central Catholic broke a long dry spell last season when it played in the Class 3A state tournament for the first time since 1989. With plenty of starters returning, and a trio of key transfers, the question this season is, now what?
“State championship,” junior outside hitter Shea Hamilton said. “After what we did last season, that’s our goal this season.”
It is not an unrealistic goal.
The Marauders haven’t won a state title in volleyball since 1985, but the 2013 version seems to have all the pieces in place.
Hamilton and fellow junior Katie Moore are two of the top frontline players in the area. Hamilton averaged nearly three kills per game as a sophomore thanks to her aggressive hitting.
Moore, at 6-foot-3, is a wall at the net. The Wake Forest commit averaged more than four blocks and 2.7 kills per game.
Hitters Rachel Odell and Sara Brown will also bolster the offense, and three transfers will help ease the sting of losing libero Rachel Miller and setter Casey Moore.
Junior setter Ashley Albers, who averaged 7.8 assists per game, and senior middle hitter Jenna Dykstra, who had 2.5 kills per game, transferred from Countryside. Setter Megan Kovach transferred from Calvary Christian.
“I think we’ll be better offensively,” coach Stephen Shepherd said. “We’ll use both of our setters in different rotations. All the attackers last season were sophomores, and they’ve had a good club season. Defensively I think it will be a struggle at the beginning.”
Some of Shepherd’s concerns about team chemistry were eased this summer at the Team Camp tournament in Gainesville. The Marauders won the tournament against some top-notch teams, including Orlando First Academy, Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons and Gainesville Buchholz.
The players are hoping chemistry rolls right into the season.
“I don’t think it will be a problem at all,” Moore said. “A lot of us have played club together and we’re comfortable with each other. We know that with hard work we can get back (to the state tournament).”
Shepherd has set up a difficult nonconference schedule that includes the Berkeley Premier Invitational, the Orlando Volleyball Academy High School Showcase and the Westminster Christian Invitational.
In 3A-9, CCC appears to the be the top team with competition coming from Calvary Christian and Indian Rocks Christian.
“I’d rather be something like 17-8 and in the regional finals tested,” Shepherd said. “I want to play the toughest schedule possible.”
A second straight trip to the state tournament is possible, but Shepherd wants to reserve judgment until his team proves something.
“Last year I was a little more optimistic,” he said. “It was because of the senior leadership and the level of talent at setter and libero. Not that I have any less confidence this year, but those girls were battle-tested; I knew what I was getting. This team has played together a lot in club, but it’s time to take the next step here. We’ll have our ups and downs this year, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”
More intriguing players for 2013
S Haley Barrett, Sr., Clearwater: Averaged 8.3 assists per game last season on a team that won 21 games. She has potential to do even better this season.
OH Shea Hamilton, Jr., CCC: One of the most exciting players in the county. Hamilton is like a pure home run hitter in baseball, she takes a big swing every time and in most cases connects.
MH Casey Houlton, Sr., St. Petersburg: Team leader in kills last season, Houlton should have another big season with plenty of talent surrounding her.
Lib Ameje Ismaili, Jr., Palm Harbor University: A second-year starter, Ismaili is a solid defender who helps keep points alive.
MB Naomi Mack, Sr., PHU: Mack can (almost) jump out of the gym. She is one of the more dangerous players at the net, especially when setting up for a kill. She had just more than three kills per game as a junior.
Lib MaKenzie Powers, Sr., East Lake: New coach Mike Morris sees Powers as a key player on this young team. She is a senior leader who is a defensive specialist.
S Hayley Misewich, Sr., Osceola: Team’s top setter for the second straight season. Integral part of a team that could make some noise this season.
MH Katie Moore, Jr., CCC: At 6-foot-3, Moore is a menace at the net. Will undoubtedly lead the Marauders in blocks and kills.
MH Sam Reeves, Sr., Clearwater: The team captain is 6-foot-2 and the Tornadoes’ biggest offensive threat. She will work alongside her sister, Meghan, and has a solid setter in Barrett.
Preseason super 7
1. Clearwater Central Catholic: Loaded. And with a tough nondistrict schedule, the Marauders will be tested by playoff time.
2. Palm Harbor University: There were some significant losses to graduation, but coach Tara Kuk said there is freshman talent to go with key returners like Mack and Ismaili.
3. Clearwater: The Tornadoes have nine seniors, including Meghan and Samantha Reeves, the “Twin Towers.” In a district with East Lake and Seminole, but Clearwater may be the team to beat.
4. St. Petersburg: The Green Devils have a good mix of players, most of whom have club experience.
5. East Lake: There are only six returners on a team that graduated nine players from 2012, and coach Mike Estes has moved on. But new coach Mike Morris has some talent, including MaKenzie Powers, Cat Wegner, Olivia Ostrowsky and Gillian Benoit.
6. Seminole: Key players return from a team that won 18 matches last season, including co-captains Alia Davis and Samantha Schlesman.
7. Osceola: Not a big team but talented enough to keep points alive. Should do well in district play.
In the conversation: Indian Rocks Christian, Calvary Christian, Pinellas Park, Keswick Christian
Sept. 6: Holy Names tournament
Sept. 6: Clearwater Central Catholic tournament
Sept. 12: Keswick Christian Invite
Sept. 13: Bishop McLaughlin tournament
Sept. 19, 27-28: Fivay Classic
Sept. 26: Invite at Clearwater Christian College
Sept. 20: Berkeley Premier
Sept. 27: Northside Christian Tournament
Oct. 11: Bayshore Invitational
Oct. 21-25: District tournaments
Oct. 29-30: Region quarterfinals
Nov. 5: Region semifinals
Nov. 9: Region finals
Nov. 12-16: State tournament
Photo: Shea Hamilton