TAMPA — Tampa Prep’s top two outside hitters met in the sixth grade during a volleyball camp. In middle school, they were briefly club teammates.
Close friends off the court, the styles of seniors Gabby Fernandez and Ericka McGriff can’t be more different on the court. Reunited for their senior year, however, their ultimate goal is the same: leading Tampa Prep, Hillsborough County’s most decorated volleyball program, to its first state title since 2004.
“When friends become teammates, it takes both of their games to another level,” Tampa Prep coach Mike Flynn said. “The difference between friends and teammates is that friends don’t really challenge each other. They don’t compete a lot. Teammates do. I think that’s one thing that Ericka and Gabby have developed throughout the year.”
On the volleyball court, they’re like fire and ice.
There’s Fernandez, the dynamic hard-swinging hitter with spring in her heels who passed 1,000 career kills early this season. The Bayshore Christian transfer’s talent draws a certain “wow” quality. She is a vocal force on the court, expecting the best from her teammates, and as Flynn calls her, the team’s “firestarter.”
And there’s McGriff, who has risen through the Tampa Prep ranks since she was a seventh-grader. The daughter of former major-league baseball player Fred McGriff, she carries herself much like her father, with a quiet confidence.
“She has the humble competitiveness of her father and the gracefulness of her mother,” Flynn said.
“We’re totally different,” McGriff said. “Gabby is the enforcer of getting things done and doing our best in everything we do. She reminds us we only have one chance to do it right so do it right the first time. I’m the go-getter too, but I’m more quiet. I guess I have a different tactic for it.”
Fernandez knows how to win. She was a freshman on Bayshore’s Class A state title team in 2007 and was one of the state’s top Class A players the next two seasons, capped with a 402-kill season as a sophomore. Her kill total this year (3.8 per game) is her lowest since she was a freshman, but she plays on a team with more attacking options.
“I played a different role,” Fernandez said. “We have a lot of balance. We have three or four hitters who can hit. Here I can take a step back. I don’t have to have to be, ‘C’mon let’s go.’ ”
This year, McGriff is having her best season. Her kill average (3.4 from 2.3) and kill percentage (47.8 from 38.2) are up significantly from last season. But McGriff also is proud of leaving her comfort zone and becoming a more vocal leader.
“I think I had to step up and take control of the team and show I can be a leader, too,” she said. “Communication is the key, and we’ve been saying that from the get-go.”
They both know their days as teammates are numbered. Tonight, they face district rival Indian Rocks Christian, a team that took them to four games twice this season, in the Class 2A region semis. They hope to still be playing on Fernandez’s 18th birthday, the day of the state semis in Lakeland — and then better last year’s state title game appearance.
“We want it to end well,” Fernandez said. “We want to win. This is our senior year. We want it to be memorable.”