TAMPA — Whether it was volleyball, softball or any other sport, Sidney Brown was almost always the best player on her team or one of the leaders or — most often — both.
Then Brown transferred to Berkeley Prep for her sophomore year.
Even as the high-profile addition to the area’s top volleyball program, Brown accepted a complementary role alongside All-America seniors Jordan Burgess and Mackenzie Dagostino.
“Last year was a big adjustment for me,” said Brown, who started her career at the Academy of the Holy Names. “I could relax on leadership and work on developing my skills. I learned from them how to lead and what it takes to motivate people.”
It was a timely lesson. The experience produced a third straight state championship for Berkeley Prep and prepared Brown for this season, which has been something of a rebuilding year for the Bucs.
Of course, rebuilding isn’t the same at Berkeley Prep as at most schools: Brown and the Bucs have rebounded from early struggles to put themselves on the cusp of another state title.
The Bucs can claim their 16th state championship at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, which would break their tie with Tampa Prep for most in the bay area.
Berkeley Prep (18-11) opens its title defense Friday against Jacksonville Episcopal in the Class 4A semifinals. In the final awaits Miami Ransom Everglades or Orlando Bishop Moore, the Bucs’ longtime nemesis and state’s top-ranked team. They lost to both teams earlier in the season.
“I think these kids are ready to do something special that no one predicted,” said Berkeley Prep coach John Coup, a longtime assistant who took over the top position this season. “They’ve worked really hard to get back to this level.”
The wins have not come nearly as easily or frequently as in the past for the Bucs: they have lost more this season (11) than in the previous three years combined (nine).
Berkeley opened with three straight losses — two in the preseason, then a title-game rematch against Bishop Moore in the opener — in their first campaign without Randy Dagostino, who led the Bucs to all 15 state titles in his 28 years as coach.
With Dagostino in an assistant’s role and his daughter Mackenzie (Maryland) and Burgess (Stanford) off at college, the Bucs struggled against tougher competition in tournaments featuring out-of-town opponents.
But at the Chicago Asics Challenge tournament in late September the Bucs reached both their nadir and their awakening. Berkeley won its first match 2-0 but lost the next four without taking a game.
“I think it was a turning point for us,” said Jessica Silva, a 6-foot senior middle blocker who is bound for Johns Hopkins. “It showed us that we all needed to step up and fill in the gaps that we lost last year.”
Away from the court, Coup made sure to include some team-building activities on the itinerary such as touring the Navy Pier, shopping along the Miracle Mile and making a handful of visits to Dagostino’s favorite hot dog stand, Portillo’s.
The on-court growth and off-court camaraderie have contributed to the Bucs’ late-season rebound, including 10 wins in their past 13 matches.
Keying that surge has been Brown, a 5-11 outside hitter who ranked second in the county with 5.2 kills per game.
Brown has embraced being thrust again into the role of team leader, something she prepared for while playing with Burgess and Mackenzie Dagostino at Berkeley Prep and over the summer on their national championship-winning club team.
“They were so kind and determined and motivated,” Brown said. “It made doing your job so easy. It was so awesome to be in that environment.”
Mackenzie Dagostino, who leads Maryland in assists as a freshman setter, was not surprised Brown assumed the leadership role that she and Burgess once shared. She said Brown takes more after Burgess, a soft-spoken player who led by example.
“She works hard all the time in practices and games,” Dagostino said. “When you’ve got people like that with that kind of energy, it’s easy to follow them.”
And much like those former Bucs greats, Brown has led Berkeley Prep to its annual fall visit to the state tournament. Even through all the changes and challenges, the expectations have remained the same.
“People get too hung up on winning games instead of the process,” Coup said. “We’re where we are because we like to be challenged.”
Jacksonville Episcopal (20-5) vs. Berkeley Prep (18-11)
Where/where: 2 p.m. Friday. Silver Spurs Arena, Kissimmee
TV: Finals will air on BHSN.
Admission: $9 per session; parking is $5
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jdhometeam.