Every match is important at district tournament time.
Each stroke, serve and point will determine if a team continues to regionals. Until now, players basically have been sharpening their shots, serves and volleys while jockeying for tournament seeding.
Winners and runnersup will continue chasing the dream of a team state title. Individuals can advance on their own to state as well should their team falter in districts. Here's a look at what the North Suncoast has to offer.
The mighty Gators
If there has been one dominant program on the North Suncoast, it's Land O'Lakes. The Gators began the season with plenty of talent but no head coach. The result? An undefeated regular season; the two closest matches — both 4-3 wins — came against rival Wiregrass Ranch. Leading the Gators is Colin Roller. Not only does he hope to return to state, he wants his team to come along. Roller paired with Chris Story to form arguably the top 1-2 tandem this spring. And with plenty of depth, including strong play from No. 4 Tim Falcon, Land O'Lakes appears primed for a district title run.
Wiregrass Ranch was expected to go through a rebuilding process after losing five of its top six players. Now it can officially be called a reloading process. The Bulls finished the regular season 13-2. Wins against Citrus and Nature Coast were confidence boosters, coach David Wilson said. The Bulls are led by Spencer Ong and Eric Rivas.
Nature Coast has three of the top four players in Hernando County in terms of wins and losses. Juniors David Cross and Andrew Lund finished with double-digit wins, and sophomore Zenon Kouts led all Sharks with a 14-1 finish.
Perhaps the feel-good story of the season was the return of Hernando senior Chris Nyholm, who finished 14-0. He skipped his junior season to refocus, and appears poised to make another run at state. Nyholm made headlines after being disqualified from state as a sophomore for missing the start of his match.
Say this about Wiregrass Ranch, the Bulls are a much better team when the Means sisters are playing. Sarah and Elizabeth Means bolstered an already solid lineup with high-caliber play. Add to the mix Hannah Still, another quality player with an undefeated regular season, and the Bulls are arguably the North Suncoast favorite to make it to state.
River Ridge went 14-1 with its only loss 4-3 to Wiregrass Ranch. One bonus to this year's roster is freshman Angela Wellman, who has played a big role in strengthening the Royal Knights. Along with older sister Nicola, the sisters pushed each of the Bulls they played to three sets. Nicola and her doubles teammate, Tijana Subotic, are trying to make a return trip to state. And with added depth, perhaps there's a shot at getting the whole team there.
Chances are Hernando County will need to rely on an individual to represent it in terms of a state run. Nature Coast did not enjoy the dominance that resulted in a district title three-peat the past few seasons. Look for undefeated Shark Kaitlyn Bugden, Central freshman Shelby Marrero and Central's duo of Brittany and Stephanie Wert to battle. And don't count out Hernando senior Alison Steiner or Nature Coast sophomore Delanie McCabe.
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 421-3886.