TAMPA — Wharton volleyball coach Eric Barber remembers his seniors’ first days on the gym floor as freshmen JV players — ripe with promise, but full of rust.
“That squad, they were really rough with their skills and some of them had just started playing volleyball,” Barber said.
“Now, they’ve set a new standard.”
Over the years, the Wildcats grew accustomed to the role of dark horse. Even now, after a breakout regular season and as they enter the Class 8A-7 district tournament with the top overall record, they face an uphill climb.
Wharton (17-3, 4-1) forced a three-way tie for first with a four-game win over Bloomingdale two weeks ago. But Wharton finds itself seeded third — its place decided from a random drawing after five tie-breaks.
The other teams, No. 1 Bloomingdale (11-7, 4-1) and No. 2 Plant (16-8, 4-1), received first-round byes. And if Wharton beats No. 6 Newsome on Tuesday, it must beat the five-time defending state champion Panthers to advance to the district final and clinch a region tournament berth.
The role of underdog, however, is one this Wharton team relishes.
“We definitely used it as motivation because we knew that other teams didn’t think we were good or anything,” said Wharton junior outside hitter Caci Andreychuk, daughter of former Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk. “I think even we figured it out when we started winning.”
This Wharton team — paced by Andreychuk (fifth in the county with 4.4 kills per game), senior middle Stephany Brown (fourth in blocks with 1.3 a game) and junior setter Ashton Stocker, a Wiregrass Ranch transfer who is a D-I prospect — already owns eight more wins than last year’s .500-hovering team.
The Wildcats’ 12-player roster includes seven seniors — all of whom play — so most of the core group of players has played together at least three seasons.
“The fact that we’ve been playing together for so long makes our team chemistry so much stronger,” Brown said.
But Barber admitted even he didn’t think a district title was a realistic goal until midseason, after Wharton opened the season 11-1, including winning its host tournament in mid September with wins over Freedom and King.
“We had a team goal of putting ourselves in a place to play for the championship, but we didn’t set a goal of winning it, because at the time we didn’t think it was a realistic goal,” Barber said. “We feel we’ve got a real chance to do it now. I’ve seen our confidence grow over the season.
“I don’t think they realized what they had at the beginning of the year.
A three-game loss at Steinbrenner served as a wake-up call, and after late-season wins over Bloomingdale and 2010 region semifinalist Riverview, the Wildcats are confident.
They know they have a collision course with Plant in Wednesday’s semifinal. The Panthers beat Wharton in three games in the Wildcats’ third game of the season. But Wharton contends it’s a much different — and better — team now.
“Our two words for the whole week have been, ‘Beat Plant,’ ” Stocker said. “I think the last time we played them we were a totally different team. The experience we’ve had since then, we know what to expect and we’re been together a lot more.”
District volleyball schedule
Class 8A-7 at Bloomingdale: Tuesday — No. 4 Alonso vs. No. 5 Durant, 5; No. 3 Wharton vs. No. 6 Newsome, 7; Wednesday — No. 2 Plant vs. Wharton/Newsome winner, 5; No. 1 Bloomingdale vs. Alonso/Durant winner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Skinny: The county’s most wide-open district, each team has a big hitter who can carry it to the postseason. Wouldn’t be surprised if any of four teams advance to regions.
Class 7A-8 at Riverview: Monday — No. 4 Brandon vs. No. 5 East Bay, 5; No. 3 Tampa Bay Tech vs. No. 6 Hillsborough, 7; Tuesday — No. 1 Plant City vs. Brandon/East Bay winner, 5; No. 2 Riverview vs. TBT/Hillsborough winner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Skinny: Riverview’s inconsistency allowed Plant City to sneak in as the top seed, but if the Sharks are healthy, they should outlast their competition. Tampa Bay Tech is a dark horse.
Class 7A-9 at Gaither: Monday — No. 4 Gaither vs. No. 5 Chamberlain, 7; Tuesday — No. 2 Freedom vs. No. 3 Wireless Ranch, 6; No. 1 Steinbrenner vs. Gaither/Chamberlain winner, 8; Thursday — final, 7
Skinny: The title is Steinbrenner’s to win. The Warriors dropped just one game in district play in a four-game win over Freedom. They might be more complete than last year’s region semifinalists.
Class 6A-11 at Strawberry Crest: Monday — No. 4 Armwood vs. No. 5 Jefferson, 5; No. 3 Strawberry Crest vs. No. 6 Leto, 7; Tuesday — No. 1 Sickles vs. Armwood/Jefferson winner, 5; No. 2 King vs. Strawberry Crest/Leto winner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Skinny: Sickles has been steady all season, but King sophomore OH Madison Sroufe is an underclassman worth watching — and for opponents — worrying about.
Class 5A-11 at Middleton: Monday — No. 4 Blake vs. No. 5 Spoto, 7; Tuesday — No. 1 Robinson vs. Blake/Spoto winner, 6; No. 2 Lennard vs. No. 3 Middleton, 8; Thursday — final, 7
Skinny: Robinson went 4-0 in district play — and outscored opponents 12-0 — so we’re thinking the Knights are a safe bet to win here.
Class 4A-9 at Berkeley Prep: Tuesday — No. 2 Holy Names vs. No. 3 Tampa Catholic, 5; No. 1 Berkeley Prep vs. No. 4 Sarasota Booker, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Skinny: In any other district, both Holy Names and Tampa Catholic are legitimate postseason teams. In this one, only one will advance.
Class 3A-8 at Bishop McLaughlin: Monday — No. 4 Seffner Christian vs. No. 5 Brooks-DeBartolo, 6; Tuesday — No. 1 Tampa Prep vs. Seffner/Brooks winner, 6; No. 2 Carrollwood Day vs. No. 3 Bishop McLaughlin, 8; Thursday — final, 6:30
Skinny: The Terrapins’ staunch out-of-league schedule should make this district east work. Few teams will have an answer for Tampa Prep hitter Katie Krueger, a Virginia Tech recruit.
Class 2A-8 at Tampa Bay Christian: Monday — No. 4 Academy at the Lakes vs. No. 5 Citrus Park Christian, 6; No. 3 Hernando Christian vs. No. 6 Tampa Bay Christian, 8; Tuesday — No. 1 Cambridge vs. ATTL/CPCS winner, 6; No. 2 Bayshore Christian vs. Hernando/TBCA winner, 8; Thursday — final, 7
Skinny: Cambridge and Bayshore both had 9-1 district records, but the Lancers have more weapons.