BRANDON — Sixteen-year-old Savannah Fredrickson slams a volleyball over a net.
"I'm not shy," her shirt reads. "I'm just quietly examining my prey."
The Valrico teen hits hard in the warmup drill, fiercely and gleefully working toward playing college volleyball.
That goal may seem closer this year because Fredrickson's team, the Brandon-based Tampa Bay HEAT, has joined the state's official interscholastic athletic organization. It's one of just four homeschool teams in the Florida High School Athletic Association, officials say.
For the Tampa Bay HEAT, an acronym that stands for the Homeschool Education and Activities Team, its new membership means more games, more competition and a higher level of play.
"It'll help us grow," Fredrickson said.
Tampa Bay HEAT, which runs the Homeschool Resource Center on S Parsons Avenue, includes about 120 families from all over Hillsborough County, said its president, Teresa Manganello. She hopes its acceptance into the FHSAA will draw more homeschoolers to the association from around the Tampa Bay area.
Joining the FHSAA opens up another option for local homeschoolers eager to get in the game.
"We had talented homeschool athletes who wanted to compete at a high level, who have aspirations to play in college," Manganello said of the organization, which she started last year to create more opportunities for her two children.
Outside the FHSAA, her homeschool group often struggled to schedule pickup games, she said, or competed in smaller leagues of Christian or private schools.
"Your games don't count," Manganello said. There's less media coverage and less exposure to college scouts, she added.
Another option outside the FHSAA: Homeschooled students can try out for club sports or local public high school teams. Last year, 85 homeschooled students played for Hillsborough County schools, said school district spokeswoman Kristin Waskiewicz. So far this year, about 65 homeschooled students have signed up to participate on public school teams.
But an all-homeschool team allows players to stay in a more familiar environment, Manganello said, with teammates they may already know through social activities.
The greatest impediment to starting the team was covering the cost of a mandated insurance policy in case of an accident, she said.
Another homeschool support group in Hillsborough County, Families Instructing Students at Home in Brandon, says it hasn't joined the FHSAA because smaller leagues suit their students better. Some, like Homeschool Around Temple Terrace, focus on younger students who aren't ready for high school-level sports.
Florida was the first state in the National Federation of State High School Associations to accept homeschool teams, according to FHSAA membership specialist Seth Polansky.
Tampa Bay HEAT will adhere to the same rules as any other new team, he said, serving a provisional two-year term while its leaders learn the association's rules.
In its first year, the Tampa Bay HEAT plans to compete in volleyball, basketball and swimming, Manganello said, with aspirations to pull together teams for sports such as soccer, golf and tennis.
The challenge now is finding facilities where the team can practice and hold games. The Tampa Bay HEAT has to rent or ask for donated space, playing in church gymnasiums without a home field advantage.
Tampa Bay HEAT also will have to maintain records of student-athletes' grade-point averages and ages, Manganello said, per the association's eligibility requirements.
In the meantime, volleyball tryouts have started. The team is running through more vigorous practices to prepare for tougher games.
The players work well together, said Valrico mom Shirley Cook, watching her two daughters at a recent tryout at First Baptist Church of Brandon. The girls tend to offer support over criticism, she said.
"Volleyball is a short season," Cook said, "but your relationships — your friendships — last forever."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.