Tampa Bay volleyball teams put on a show last year at the state level in Kissimmee. Robinson, Berkeley Prep, Steinbrenner and Clearwater Central Catholic made the state semifinals in their respective classes, but none of the four had the chance to compete in the championship game. This season, those teams will be vying for a repeat trip while fending off others hoping for their program's big break. Here are the story lines and players to watch as a new crop of teams attempts to bring a championship back to Tampa Bay.
For three seasons, the Berkeley Prep volleyball dynasty reaped the benefits of one of Tampa Bay's — and the nation's — best players in Sidney Brown. The two-time Tampa Bay Times' Suncoast Player of the Year totalled 1,242 kills during three years with the Bucs, and Brown, now at Stanford, was the statistical and vocal leader on a team for which making the state final four is a given. Now that the 5-foot-11 outside hitter is off playing college volleyball, the Bucs face a big question: Can they continue the dynasty without their marquee player?
Tampa Prep had some big successes last go-around, including an upset of rival Berkeley Prep and a postseason campaign that brought them one step short of the state final four. The Terrapins return standouts Corey Perkins, Alana Nelson, Ariana Mosley and Claire Blumenthal as well as 87 percent of their kills, leaving Tampa Prep with the best state championship odds in Hillsborough County. For the third straight time, Tampa Prep's 2013 season ended with a region final loss to the Orlando First Academy, a team that has been nothing short of a thorn in the Terrapins' side. But with more experience than ever on the roster — freshman Julia Molliack is the only new starter — the Terrapins have newfound confidence and the same desire to make it to the game's biggest stage. "We looked at it last year as though, if we don't win a championship, it's really not a success," coach Andrew Wilson said. "And that's how we're looking at it this year."
The Rhoades to states
Last year, Bloomingdale outside hitter Karissa Rhoades was one of the Tampa Bay area's best players, recording 457 kills and 65 service aces. Now that the 5-foot-11 senior is back for her senior season, the Bulls' path to the state could be even more defined. Bloomingdale fell to Palm Harbor University last season in the region semifinals, but with most of the big hitters returning — the Bulls graduated just one player who had more than 100 kills in 2013 — it could be a team to watch.
Third time a charm?
For the past two seasons, Clearwater Central Catholic advanced to the Class 3A state semifinals only to come up short. In 2012 it was a 3-2 loss to Gainesville St. Francis. Last season it was a 3-2 loss to Orlando First Academy. If there was ever a year to buck that trend, it's this year. The Marauders appear loaded. Seniors Shea Hamilton, Katie Moore, Rachel Odell, Ashley Albers, Sara Brown and Maria Jose Amundaray all played big roles last season. Throw in a challenging schedule that includes the OVA Showcase, the Berkeley Premier and matches against First Academy and Palm Harbor University, and the Marauders will be seasoned come playoff time. "The big question for us this year is are we going to beat ourselves?" CCC coach Stephen Shepherd said. "We lost in five last year (at the state semifinals) and had 40 errors. If we get ourselves back in that position, we need to calm the nerves and play like we are capable of playing."
Building on the best
Bishop McLaughlin finished 18-7 last season, the best campaign in program history. Now the trouble will be building upon that. Coach Douglas Chinchar admits his Hurricanes could be on a "down year," returning just three starters. But don't count his team out, he says. Bishop McLaughlin will return starters setter Jenny Astell, and outside hitters Casey McColl and San Diego State commit Alyssa Mathis. And though the district tournament is still months away, the Hurricanes are already putting their eggs in that basket. "It'll be interesting. We have some kids that will have to step up a bit," Chinchar said. "All that matters is the district tournament. We're going to take our time, figure things out, and be ready for that district tournament."