TAMPA — Even the best teams need help every once in a while. For Plant, Berkeley Prep and Tampa Prep — all three are state tournament regulars — this volleyball season will feature some new faces on the roster. A look at the face lifts some of the top programs are receiving:
The four-time defending state champs may have lost the most in All-Americans Maddie Martin and libero Ali McCurdy, who have taken their talents to Penn State and Duke, respectively. The Panthers will also be without top returning outside hitter Alex Johnson for several weeks as she recovers from an ankle injury.
So where does that leave the Panthers? Reloading. Coach Leanna Taylor said the first contact that McCurdy provided is the biggest need. New libero Charlotte Hill, one of many seniors making their first starts, will take over, and the connection between her and new setter Maren Douglas, a junior, will be important in setting up hitters Johnson, Tina Catanach and Brynne Fruhmorgen.
Taylor will have to replace four starters from her 6A champs, just one more than last season, but the quality of the talent she lost is greater this time.
For the Buccaneers, who won the 3A state crown last season, the biggest hole is in the middle. Middle hitter Lindsay Young was a four-year starter, and coach Randy Dagostino will have a hard time replacing her leadership.
"We may have to be creative with talent," Dagostino said. "But I feel the chemistry for us to compete nationally and in the state of Florida is there."
Middle hitter Amber Mirabello (11 kills, nine blocks vs. Plant in preseason) and senior Taylor Hayes may rotate in and out of the middle, mainly because their presence is needed outside, too.
Perhaps the biggest changes have taken place at Tampa Prep. Third-year setter Caroline Dillabough and outside hitter Latora Lofgren are gone, as is promising middle hitter Savannah Cantrell, who moved to Jacksonville.
In a lot of ways, this Terps team will have to get used to playing with each other. Sophomore middle hitter Katie Krueger (6-foot-2) missed half of last season with a shoulder injury, and senior Jamie Hamilton is returning from an ACL injury in her knee.
"I think all of our skill positions we have, it's just the connectiveness between the positions," coach Mike Flynn said. "That kind of stuff doesn't happen overnight."
But Tampa Prep gets the top addition in the county, Bayshore Christian transfer Gabby Fernandez, one of the area's most explosive outside hitters. She should complement senior outside hitter Ericka McGriff well.
Players to watch
OH Jordan Burgess, Jr., Berkeley Prep: 3A player of the year averaged 3.6 kills, 3.8 digs.
MH Sarah Burrington, Jr., Riverview: Led county with 1.9 blocks per game, added 5.7 kills, 2.8 digs.
OH Tina Catanach, Sr., Plant: Loyola (Md.) commitment will play a large offensive role this season (1.6 kills a game last year).
S/OH Mackenzie Dagostino, Jr., Berkeley Prep: 6.7 assists, 2.7 digs a game in Bucs' two-setter lineup.
S Sam Drane, Sr., Steinbrenner: Her 7.5 assists a game top every returning setter.
OH Gabby Fernandez, Sr., Tampa Prep: Bayshore Christian transfer brings 4.7 kills per game, competitiveness to Terps.
S Taylor Hackemack, Jr., Durant: Mississippi State commitment is a coach's dream come true: a 6-foot-1 setter.
OH Alex Johnson, Sr., Plant: Her 4.3 kills a game will be missed while she misses a month with ankle injury.
OH Kristen Ligouri, Sr., Steinbrenner: Was Warriors' top hitter with 2.9 kills per game.
MH Jonni Raga, Sr., Newsome: One of lone returning starters from last year's Class 5A semifinalists.
Libero Natasha Rowland, Sr., Berkeley Prep: Top returning player at her defensive specialist position, she averaged 4.2 digs, 530 serves received.
OH/S Lindsey Watson, Sr., Brandon: Eagles' do-it-all senior averaged 3.3 kills, 1.8 aces, 3.9 digs.
Preseason Top 10
1. Berkeley Prep: The defending 3A state champs are the county's elite.
2. Plant: The Panthers lose two All-Americans and will be without their top hitter for a month.
3. Brandon: Eagles continue to be eastern Hillsborough's top team, but can they make more postseason noise?
4. Tampa Prep: Terps have holes to fill, but addition of Bayshore transfer Gabby Fernandez will help.
5. Steinbrenner: Warriors return entire team, and now know how to win.
6. Newsome: Coach Kate Correa led underdog Wolves to state last year. Can they repeat the magic?
7. Sickles: Gryphons lose just three players from 20-win team, but among them is top hitter Lauren Ramsay.
8. Riverview: The Sharks have size and experience. Could contend for district title.
9. Durant: Last year's eight-win season in the past, Cougars can make some noise.
10. Armwood: Without graduated hitter Emilee Taylor, can Hawks repeat as district champs in the county's toughest district?
tUESDAY: Riverview at Plant — Panthers raise their fourth straight state title banner. In related news, Plant's gym is running out of wall space.
tUESDAY: Durant at Steinbrenner — Two programs on rise. This is tough opener for second-year Warriors.
Friday-Saturday: GatorTown Classic at Gainesville Buchholz — Local teams Plant, Tampa Prep, Steinbrenner and Durant are among some of the state's top squads that will participate in this early season test.
Sept. 10-11: Holy Names Tournament — Sickles and Holy Names headline the field.
Sept. 14: Palm Harbor U. at Berkeley Prep — One of Pinellas' top teams comes across the bay to face the defending 3A state champs.
Sept. 14: Durant vs. Newsome — Class 5A state qualifier Wolves face a tough district match.
Sept. 16: Tampa Prep at Berkeley Prep — Tampa's classic private school rivalry adds its latest chapter.
Sept. 24-25: Berkeley Premier Invitational — A possible Plant-Berkeley matchup doesn't overshadow a field that includes out-of-state powers Louisville (Ky.) Mercy and Huntsville (Ala.).
Sept. 28: Brandon at Plant — The Eagles haven't had much success against their district rival. First of two regular-season meetings.
Oct. 8-9: Tampa Prep Invitational — Terps host another of the top tournaments in the state.
Oct. 19: Plant at Newsome — Two likely postseason qualifiers square off in a nondistrict match.
Oct. 25-29: District tournaments
Nov. 2-13: Region tournaments
Nov. 17-20: State tournament (at Lakeland Center)