TAMPA — The volleyball postseason is here. For the teams that postured all season for district tournament seeding, their season officially starts this week.
A look at some of the teams to watch as this week's district tournaments begin:
The team to beat: Berkeley Prep
The defending 3A state champs (22-2) are hands down Hillsborough County's top team. The state's No. 1-ranked team, according to MaxPreps, lost just two matches all season, both coming to nationally ranked out-of-state opponents (No. 12 Louisville Assumption and No. 25 Louisville Mercy). They won the prestigious Tampa Bay Invitational, which included four defending state champions. Their middle blockers, a weakness earlier this season, are now battle-tested, and this year's emergence of senior outside hitter Amber Mirabello (4.1 kills a game) might make the Buccaneers more dangerous than last year.
Most battle-tested team: Tampa Prep
Their 8-15 regular-season record doesn't impress, but the Terps have played arguably the toughest schedule a 2A team can play. They've played well in some tough matches, taking a game from Plant and Berkeley Prep, which has boosted Tampa Prep's confidence as it enters the postseason. "If this team is focused and this team has high energy, I feel like we're unstoppable," said senior hitter Gabby Fernandez, a Northern Kentucky commitment who averages a team-high 3.7 kills a game. "We just took a game from Berkeley. Those are big things. If we're focused and have our head right and our attitudes right, we're capable of winning states tomorrow. We have all the tools to get there."
The dark horse: Academy of the Holy Names
The Jaguars haven't gone into the postseason on the best note, winning just four of their last nine, but there's no mistaking that this young team, with three freshmen and two sophomores in the rotation, has the talent to make noise in Class 3A-8. The key might be having 6-foot junior middle/right-side hitter Brynn Wiley, who gives Holy Names power on the block and veteran leadership, back from a knee injury.
The forgotten champs: Plant
Another team beset by injury, the defending 6A champs aren't as strong as the Panthers powers of years past, but they've dominated the district just as well. Plant didn't drop a game to a 6A-8 opponent all season, and ended its district schedule with a convincing three-game win over second-place Bloomingdale. Plant setter Maren Douglas, a first-year starter, is averaging 10.6 assists a game.
Best turnaround: Durant
A team that won just eight matches last year, the Cougars (12-4) didn't drop a game to a 5A-8 opponent, including three-game wins over Riverview and Plant City, both tall, talented teams. What makes Durant most intriguing is that it spreads the ball around well. Setter Taylor Hackemack (6.3 assists a game) has two big attacking weapons in Alison Wade (3.3 kills) and Kerrie Reinhardt (2.3 kills). "The girls also understand that just because they're the No. 1 seed doesn't mean they'll win (the district) tournament. Last year taught them a lot," said Durant coach Jeff Davis, whose team was upset by Newsome in the semis.
Most interesting district: Class 5A-9
Heading into the season, we had no idea who would emerge from this district. And now, heading into district tournament play, we still don't. Any of five teams — Freedom, Sickles, Gaither, King and Chamberlain — could come away with a region berth. We're taking a young Freedom team led by freshman outside hitter Ashley Wilson (4.0 kills per game) and senior middle hitter Lindsay Taggart (3.0 kills, 0.7 blocks) over Sickles in the final, but King, a team that doesn't let the ball hit the floor, could provide a challenge.