TARPON SPRINGS — It was June, the day before Patrick Sneed was going to board a plane and escape for 45 fun-filled days in New Zealand, when the email arrived from Jenn Smith.
She explained she was a setter, which was kind of perfect, because Tarpon Springs didn’t have one.
She explained that she was a club player, which was kind of perfect, because the Spongers didn’t have many of those either.
And she explained that she would be transferring to Tarpon Springs from Pennsylvania, which was even better than perfect.
Here’s what wasn’t so perfect: Sneed responded to the email but never heard back, and when he Googled Jenn Smith’s name he couldn’t find anything about her.
“I thought someone might be playing a practical joke on me,” Sneed said.
Then Sneed left for New Zealand.
But Smith, he would learn when he got back, was real.
Smith, a senior, proved to the be the missing piece to what has been the Spongers’ most successful season in more than a decade.
Today at 6 p.m. in Kissimmee, they will meet Fort Myers in a Class 6A state semifinal, the first time they have advanced this far since 1993.
“I think we were thinking districts,” said Kelsi Collins, a sophomore team captain. “We thought we could get at least that far. But state? That was like a dream for us.”
What made the dream come true?
The Spongers were moved out of a district that last year included East Lake and Clearwater. Collins anchored a solid defense. Ashlyn MacGregor, who started playing volleyball her freshman year, emerged as a force at the net. And Smith made it all work.
“I think we all just clicked,” said Smith, who played last year at Central Bucks South in Warrington, Penn. “I didn’t expect it would happen so fast.”
Especially since when she got here she was told Tarpon Springs wasn’t a very good program and she should reconsider.
But Smith stuck with Tarpon Springs, and said reports of the state of the Spongers team were greatly exaggerated.
“I thought right away, ‘You know what, this could actually work out,’ ” she said.
MacGregor, as the primary hitter completely dependent on the setter, said the Spongers had spent most of the summer staring at themselves, wondering who could play the position.
“It just wasn’t working,” she said. “Jenn showing up was a relief.”
MacGregor, who leads the team in kills and has been a postseason force for the 24-3 Spongers, said once the team won the Keswick Invitational, it knew big things were in store.
The crowds got bigger. The backslapping in school more pronounced, and now that the football team’s season is over, “we’re really popular,” Smith said.
Today’s challenge is monumental. Fort Myers is 26-2, with both losses coming to teams that also made it to state. The Green Wave has won 55 of its past 56 games and 18 straight matches. It has been state runnerup four times since 2003, including the past two seasons.
None of which seems to faze the Spongers, who aren’t even supposed to be here.
“This,” said Collins, “is just so cool.”
Silver Spurs Arena, Kissimmee. Admission is $9 per session.
6A semifinal: Fort Myers vs. Tarpon Springs, 6 p.m.
8A semifinal: East Lake vs. DeLand, 2 p.m.
6A final, 8 p.m.
8A final, 2 p.m.