Lesser-known players make good volleyball teams better

Berkeley Prep’s Natasha Rowland draws praise for her footwork on the court. The 5-foot-4 libero is a third-year starter.

ZACH BOYDEN-HOLMES | Special to the Times

Berkeley Prep’s Natasha Rowland draws praise for her footwork on the court. The 5-foot-4 libero is a third-year starter.

TAMPA

All the regular-season games, the weekend tournaments, the hours of practice since August come to a head next week. In fact, many volleyball coaches would say that when district tournament play starts, the season truly begins. The past two months have purely been posturing for district tournament seeds. As a preview to next week's district tournaments, we take a look at a foursome of players who have raised their games during the regular season and made their teams even more potent heading into the "real" season.

Leah Jordan, MH, Plant

Outside hitters, like Maddie Martin and Alex Johnson, are always the focus of the Panthers' offensive attack, but Jordan's increased role in the offense might be the best reason the Panthers have their most balanced attack during their three-year state title dynasty.

At the end of last year, coach Leanna Taylor moved Jordan, a third-year starter, to the No. 1 middle role, placing her on the same row as the setter, which makes her a prime option in the front row.

The 6-foot-1 Jordan leads the Panthers in blocks with 54 (1.2 a game) and is averaging 2.5 kills a game.

"She's really become a big part of our offense," Taylor said. "And she's so fast on the block. She's one of those players who practically always closes on the block."

Tiffani Pate, OH/MH, Brandon

Brandon coach Amy Watson didn't necessarily expect Pate, a junior, to blossom into a starter this season, but that's exactly what's happened.

Pate's flexibility is a plus, being able to play inside or outside, but her blocking has helped the Eagles most. At just 5-foot-10, Pate has become a nice complement to junior middle Nicole Higgins, the county's third leading blocker (1.2 a game).

"She's just really improved as a blocker," Watson said. "She's been really committed. She came in and took the job from one of our seniors."

Natasha Rowland, lib, Berkeley Prep

At 5-foot-4, Rowland is the smallest player on the court for the Buccaneers, but this season the junior third-year starter has learned to play well beyond her means.

She leads Berkeley in digs (4.7 a game) and serve receptions (5.5 a game), highlighted by a 35-dig, 42-receive match in the Bucs' five-set win over Tallahassee Leon in the Berkeley Premier.

"She covers twice the amount of ground than she did last year," Berkeley coach Randy Dagostino said. "She's small in stature, but she's been able to improve her footwork and the way she reads a play that she's very seldom caught off guard."

Taylor Hackemack, S, Durant

Having a 6-foot-2 setter is a coach's dream, but Durant's Jeff Davis had to wait to insert Hackemack, a sophomore, into the lineup because of an early-season injury.

Running a two-setter offense with senior Erika Wardzinki, Hackemack leads the Cougars with 4.1 assists a game. Her best game came against Plant City, when she tallied 31 assists in a three-set win.

But the added height she gives the Cougars' defensive front line might be her greatest asset.

"The biggest thing she adds is her ability to block the net and try to match her up with other team's big outside hitter," Davis said. "She has become a really big blocker and brings a lot of volleyball experience."

Lesser-known players make good volleyball teams better 10/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 11:36pm]

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