SPRING HILL — For the third consecutive season, Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics won the Hernando County middle school championship in volleyball.
This year, it did it with two key differences: a new coach, Karen Jones, and a new star player, Sierra Ruiz.
The previous two seasons, the Navigators built a formidable program under coach Patti Martin. Martin, whose daughter Layci was one of Challenger's top players, is now the coach at Hernando High School. Her departure left a void that Jones, a first-grade teacher and former assistant, filled admirably.
"At first, I was really hesitant because of the pressure (of keeping up Challenger's success)," Jones said. "I knew where these girls were coming from, and I didn't want to let them down."
One of Jones' first tasks was to fill out the 2009 roster and name a captain. Ruiz, who was named a captain along with teammate McKenna Krause, made her choice somewhat easy. The eighth-grade hitter/setter had become a vocal member of the team on and off the court.
Her influence helped other players reach their potential. And Ruiz also performed at an elite level herself.
"She has an incredible vertical jump for a girl her height," Jones said of the 5-foot-5 Ruiz. "Not only that, she has an awesome jump serve."
There isn't a lot of jump-serving at the middle school level, which gave Ruiz and the Navigators an advantage much of the season. It was such an advantage that Jones would tell Ruiz to stop jump-serving at certain points in matches to keep them from becoming too lopsided.
Now a freshman at Hernando, Layci Martin called Ruiz one of the key players on the Challenger team as a seventh-grader. In fact, it was Martin who persuaded Ruiz to start playing the sport in sixth grade when Challenger hosted a volleyball camp. The two had a relationship that benefited both the team and Ruiz's progress on the court.
"(Our relationship) definitely helped me become better," Ruiz said. "She always helped me out. She taught me how to set really well."
Challenger's dominance on the court has been well documented. Not only did the team go undefeated at 7-0, but the Navigators never lost a game all season. At that level, teams play best-of-three-game matches. Challenger won all 14 games it played.
"I knew we were going to be pretty good, but I didn't realize we'd win every single game," Ruiz said. "We killed every team, but we didn't want to be too aggressive. We wanted to have good sportsmanship."
In the Hernando County middle school championship match with Powell, Ruiz scored a match-high eight points in the 25-19, 25-13 rout of the Panthers.
While Ruiz's strength is playing on the back row, she plays all over the court. Jones says she almost never took her off the floor. Because of her versatility, there is little doubt that Ruiz's game will translate well at the high school level, her coach says.
She plans to attend Nature Coast Technical High School next year, where her father, Pete Ruiz, is the school's baseball coach. At Nature Coast, she should join another former Navigator, Courtney Liddle, who helped lead the Sharks to their first state playoff victory in program history this month.
"I don't see her having any problems at all making (the) high school team. That's for sure," Jones said. "She definitely has the commitment and the support of her family."
It is that support that helps Ruiz excel in every endeavor she undertakes. She currently plays basketball for the Navigators, and is an all-star in the classroom as well, maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average.
Once she reaches high school, Ruiz plans to focus on her studies and volleyball.
"I want to see how good a player I can be," she said. "There was a time I wasn't really interested in volleyball. Now, it's my favorite sport."