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Region volleyball: Robinson's newfound pride starts at top

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Mon. November 5, 2012 | Joel Anderson

In the third set of the playoff opener, Robinson found itself down eight points to the team that knocked it out of the postseason the previous year.

Lauren Peterson, a junior outside hitter for the Knights, glanced up at the scoreboard. It all felt so familiar.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was so tired,” Peterson said. “But we never really got frustrated. We didn’t give up.”

For a team unaccustomed to the pressures of the postseason, it was yet another critical juncture on the path to becoming a fledgling contender. And true to Peterson’s words, Robinson rallied for a dramatic five-set victory over Lakewood in the region quarterfinals Wednesday.

But under first-year coach Christen Garcia, the Knights want more for a program that has long been an afterthought in the county, in south Tampa and even on its own campus.

Robinson will face Dunedin on Tuesday night in the region semifinals, rarefied air for a team that had gone 33 years without a playoff appearance until last season.

“The goal coming in was: let’s do better than last year,” Garcia said. “So they have nothing to lose right now.”

Garcia came to Robinson after working as the junior varsity coach at the Academy of Holy Names last year — under stepfather and varsity head coach Jeff Davis — and spending several years as a coach and director of operations for Tampa Bay One volleyball club.

She is a familiar name in local volleyball circles, one of the standouts on three state championship teams at Durant in the previous decade and a former standout at Georgia State.

Garcia spent time coaching at her alma mater, Illinois State and Iowa before deciding she wanted to return to Florida, pursue a master’s of business administration at South Florida and work in business. However, the lure of the hardwood proved too much and she found herself back on the court before long.

“It’s just kind of in my blood,” she said. “It’s something I’ve grown to be confident in doing.”

In that way, Garcia was a perfect fit for Robinson.

Since winning a state championship in 1978, the Knights had fallen on hard times on the hardwood. They didn’t have another winning season until 2011, when they finished 18-11 and won their first district title in 33 years.

Robinson went on to win its first-round playoff game against Bradenton Southeast in five sets then lost in three to Lakewood. At the end of the year, coach Ryan Wheatley moved on and Garcia moved into the top coaching position.

Garcia found there was still plenty of room for improvement.

Shayne Sasse, an assistant coach, former player and 2009 graduate of Robinson, had been through lean years at the south Tampa school. When Garcia entered the gym for the first time, Sasse said she noticed an immediate change in the program.

“She came out and had a real plan,” Sasse said. “That was the first time I felt like I was under a coach who had confidence in what she was doing.”

That confidence was important for players like junior Kylee Gorngpratum, who spent the previous two years on junior varsity and had never played setter until Garcia moved her into the position. Gorngpratum, whom Sasse calls the team’s best athlete, led the Knights with 488 assists this fall.

“I felt a little out of place,” Gorngpratum said. “But I’ve grown so much. They just pushed me and the more they pushed me, the more I knew I could do it.”

Her development mirrored that of the team. After losing six of their first seven matches, the Knights won six straight heading into their Oct. 4 game against Sickles.

For the Knights, Sickles would be a test of how far they had truly come: in three matches in the previous three years, they had failed to win a single set.

This time, Robinson freed itself of its doubts and history in a five-set victory on Sickles’ home floor.

“We were, like, ‘Wow, we can do this,’ ” said senior Alexandria Gaertner, second on the team with 137 kills. “That’s when we realized what kind of potential we had and how good we could be.”

That experience was reassuring to Garcia, who has grown so confident in her team that she wasn’t worried when it was on the brink of elimination last week. In time, she said, that confidence will be contagious.

“This team has really come together,” Garcia said. “And I think they’re going to come out on the winning end.”

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