Saturday, January 20, 2018

Column: Durant strategy perfect so far, but pressure will mount in playoffs


Last week was for Durant High. The school could say its volleyball team was — and still is — unbeaten and untouched.

This week is for the seniors. They look to redeem themselves after losing in last year's district semifinals, which ended their postseason prematurely.

And after that?

Well, that will be for history.

The Cougars (24-0) enter this week's Class 7A, District 7 tournament as Tampa Bay's only unbeaten volleyball team.

They won their first 31 sets against district competition — until Plant City took one off them last week — and won 33 of 34. So the Cougars are expected to cruise through districts.

But the pressure will only grow. Not to just keep winning, but to not lose.

It will be no easy task.

Since the state changed volleyball's format to best-of-five, 25-point sets in 2003, no area team has finished an entire season undefeated.

There are injuries and tournaments and challenges like the seven matches in seven days Durant endured at one point this season. To navigate all of those things without a night off is rare.

When Plant won five straight state titles, the best it finished was 30-1 (in 2007) and 29-1 (2009).

East Lake was 29-2 and 27-1 in its championship seasons of 2010 and '11, and Berkeley Prep was 30-2 in 2011.

"I think going into the districts (and postseason) is hard because everyone wants to knock you off," said coach Brittany Wade.

But her team isn't shying from perfection. Nor are the Cougars surprised by it.

"We've worked really hard for this so I would never say I'm surprised," said hitter Lexi Thompson, the team leader with 312 kills. "We deserve this."

When Wade was hired three years ago, she inherited a young group that has evolved into a team that expects to make a state title run.

The Cougars have size at the net with Victoria Fanning (5-foot-9) and Kelsey Morton (6-0), a top libero in Annie Quinn and a smooth, steady setter in Rachel Rice.

And they have Thompson.

Just 41 kills from the school record, Thompson played the best match of her season in Win No. 24 against Bloomingdale last seek. No one gets to state without a weapon like her.

"She's not the whole team, but she's a huge part," Wade said. "I think it's awesome to have a player like her, that you can go to whenever you need to. What she did last week, that was rising to the occasion."

Thompson, an 6-foot-1 Ole Miss signee, was a setter until her ninth-grade year at Sickles. The move to hitter wasn't palatable to her initially. But by midseason she grew into it.

"I was awful," she said. "I loved setting so I really didn't want to hit."

Now, just try to stop her.

Against Bloomingdale she had 35 kills, and Wade can count only two blemishes on her night — one time she was blocked and one hitting error.

"Crazy," said Wade.

Fanning, Morton, Rice, Quinn and Thompson are components Wade thinks can keep Durant perfect.

A former player at Durant and a member of the 2002 state champion team — not too far removed from her playing days, she sometimes looks like she's living and dying with every point as she paces the sidelines — Wade (then Brittany Wilson) feels a special desire to bring the Cougars back among the state's elite.

Her record has improved each year, from 11-12 to 12-5 to perfect.

That disappointing loss in 2012's district semis put this year into clear focus for the seniors.

"I saw a little of it last year, and losing in the semifinals seemed to put an oomph in their steps," Wade said. "Then it carried over into club volleyball, and I thought we really might have something."

Durant has passed tough tests against Steinbrenner and Bradenton Manatee, and survived a huge challenge from Bloomingdale last week.

Will it be enough to guide the perfect Cougars through a postseason that might include a rematch with the Warriors and even bigger challenges?

"It's a pretty special group," Wade said. "We're ready."

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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