CLEARWATER — When the Countryside volleyball team takes the Lakeland Center court today for the Cougars' Class 6A state semifinal, an all-too familiar dilemma will present itself on the other side of the net in the form of opponent Timber Creek.
The Wolves' top blocker, sophomore Jade Vorster, stands 6-foot-3. Rachel Stacy, the Wolves' other middle blocker, is listed at 6 feet.
University of Tampa signee Jessica Yingling, Timber Creek's leading hitter, is 5-foot-10. On the bench sit two more players pushing the 6-foot mark.
Meanwhile, Madison Truluck, Countryside's tallest starter, seems rather undersized by comparison at 5-foot-9.
"It's hard for us," Countryside coach Kaylyn Bayly said. "Because we're so small, we can't make many mistakes."
So then, how do the Cougars continue to win?
"We try not to let it get in our heads," senior Mercedez Wilgus said. "And we play really good defense. Because we're so tiny, we have to be good defensively."
The Cougars do all the little things right. They dig every ball. They pass as well as any team Pinellas County has ever produced. And rarely do they miss a serve.
"When we dig a ball that the other team thinks is definitely a kill, I think we just wear them down mentally," Truluck said. "Like the other day against Dr. Phillips, I kept going for the ball and (Davionna DiSalvatore) would already be there. I was like, 'Where did you come from?' It's been like that all season."
To help the Cougars prepare for the multitude of towering hitters the team would face in the playoffs, Bayly sought out the help of St. Petersburg coach and lifelong friend Dexter Rogers.
Since beginning regional play, Rogers, a former member of the U.S. men's national volleyball team, has attended Countryside practices, lining up his physically imposing 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame on the other side of the net to give the Cougars a sense of what they could face.
As a blocker, Rogers forces Truluck and DiSalvatore to find a way to hit around his block. And with a decent set, he violently smacks the ball toward the back row, daring the Cougars to dig it.
"Our arms hurt at the end of the day," Truluck admitted.
The results, however, have been anything but painful.
"Dr. Phillips had a tall outside and a really small outside," Truluck said. "So in practice Dexter played the part of the tall outside and (assistant coach) Bev (Statis) was the small. When we got in the game, Dr. Phillips was not nearly as good as what we had practiced against. So it helps a lot."
Countryside, which enters the state semifinals at 29-0, is looking for the school's first volleyball championship. The Cougars have made one prior final four appearance in 2000 but were ousted in the semifinals.
"I think we're going to do really well," DiSalvatore said. "I think we're going to come out confident. It's really just a huge honor for us to make it this far."
|Sara Wright, sophomore, 5-6||S||Adriana Vazquez, senior, 5-6|
|Gia Tomossone, senior, 5-7||RS||Kristine Monforte, junior, 5-5|
|Mercedez Wilgus, senior, 5-8||MB||Rachel Stacy, senior, 6 feet|
|Madison Truluck, senior, 5-9||MB||Jade Vorster, sophomore, 6-3|
|Davionna DiSalvatore, junior, 5-8||OH||Leah Turner, freshman, 5-8|
|Christina Berry, sophomore, 5-5||OH||Jessica Yingling, senior, 5-10|