TAMPA — Beating 10-time state champion Plant was the first hint that the local volleyball pecking order was in flux. Then Wharton strengthened its resume with eight more wins, all in the comfort of its own gym.
But there was one remaining hurdle before the Wildcats could rightfully be considered the top volleyball team among Hillsborough’s public schools — Steinbrenner, which has been a local power since opening in 2009.
Wharton made its claim Monday night in an emphatic display of dominance and unflinching consistency.
The Wildcats (14-0) maintained their perfect season with a 25-15, 25-19, 21-25, 25-19 win over Steinbrenner that seemed even more lopsided than the score would indicate. It was their first victory over the Warriors in three tries.
“It was definitely a big test for us,” Wharton coach Eric Barber said. “Steinbrenner is an outstanding program and this shows we’re on the right track.”
Caci Andreychuk, a 5-foot-11 senior outside hitter, led the Wildcats with 33 kills and 16 digs. “It was the best game I’ve ever seen her play for us,” Barber said.
Andreychuk, 6-foot-1 senior setter Ashton Stocker, freshman Chanelle Hargreaves and the rest of the Wildcats posed all kinds of problems for Steinbrenner (9-4), which was playing without senior outside hitter Madison Seuzeneau. Coach Laura Stegenga declined to comment on Seuzeneau’s absence from the lineup.
Wharton used its height and depth to overwhelm the Warriors, who fell behind by 11 points in the first and fourth sets. Steinbrenner battled back in both of those and made a late rally in the third set, scoring six of the final seven points, to avoid a sweep.
In the end, the Warriors simply didn’t pose much of a threat.
Compounding their struggles, Wharton’s infamous and headline-making student section, the Blue Crew, was in midseason form and created a wild playoff-like atmosphere Monday.
A group of visiting Steinbrenner students tried to match the intensity of the home crowd, starting up a “Who’s the Blue Crew?” chant. The thunderous response: “Read the paper!” Clap, clap, clapclapclap. “Read the paper!”
“We’re not used to that,” Stegenga said. “But I’d rather play a game like this over and over again to get us used to this kind of pressure.”
It was quite a turnaround from the previous year, when Steinbrenner rolled to a 25-12, 25-14, 25-11 win over Wharton at home.
That was one of four losses in 23 matches for the Wildcats last year. One came against Springstead and the other two were to Plant, who knocked them out in the second round of the playoffs.
Things have changed. Wharton will now be the prohibitive favorite in its remaining matches, including tough district games against Newsome and Bloomingdale.
Wary of their status as top contenders, the Wildcats insist they’ve got bigger goals in mind.
“This feels good,” Andreychuk said. “But this is just the start. We want to win district.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jdhometeam.