TARPON SPRINGS — East Lake completed one of the more successful volleyball seasons in school history in 2009.
The Eagles finished with a 23-5 record.
East Lake won a district title, ending a string of six straight seasons without one.
It advanced to the region semifinals for the eighth time in program history and first since 2002.
Yet, the lasting, gut-wrenching image that haunted East Lake all offseason was that of Clearwater celebrating on the Eagles' home court after dumping them unceremoniously in three games in a region semifinal playoff match.
"I hate to even talk about it. It's just terrible to think back, a terrible experience," East Lake junior middle hitter Brianna McComeskey said. "I remember when it happened that I didn't believe it. It just didn't sink in for a while that it actually happened and our season was over. Our big plans were done because of Clearwater."
East Lake defeated Clearwater three times during the 2009 season; Clearwater won just once.
The Tornadoes, though, prevailed when it mattered most, denying the Eagles a spot in the region final they had all but booked.
"We were prepared for (region final opponent) Venice," McComeskey said. "We were pumped for them and just kind of looked over Clearwater. That's not going to happen this year. I know I won't forget about that."
The Eagles are hoping the lessons learned from last year's upset will keep the team focused in 2010. Returning nearly every player from last year's squad, the Eagles enter the season as the team to beat in the county.
"We've had a whole offseason of playing club," senior middle Lauran Eschenroeder said. "Almost everyone on this team has played on a competitive club team. I think both mentally and physically we're stronger. We have so much talent on our team."
The Eagles are an imposing group with the 6-foot-1 Eschenroeder and 6-foot McComeskey manning the middle. Outside hitters Brittnay Estes (5-foot-8) and Jackie Wegner (5-foot-9) are a bit shorter but play much larger. Junior setters Rachel Reed and Lindsay Havican have a year of experience running the high-powered offense.
And the scary part for the rest of the county? Among the starters, only Eschenroeder, who has verbally committed to the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design, is a senior.
"We feel we can go pretty far this year," McComeskey said. "We have high expectations, and we're ready to meet them this year."
Five to watch
OH Marissa Lisenbee, Jr., Seminole: Phenomenal blocker and powerful hitter was named to the all-tournament team as a representative of Team Florida at the USA Volleyball High Performance Championships in Wisconsin this summer.
MH Leah McNary, Sr., Palm Harbor University: Heavily recruited 5-foot-9 middle hitter led the county in blocks last season by a wide margin.
OH Marisa Moralobo, Sr., Indian Rocks Christian: Intense competitor with incredible power and leaping ability will attempt to lead the Golden Eagles to their first-ever state final four.
S Kahley Patrick, Sr., Clearwater: Arguably the county's best setter, Patrick's distribution helped the Tornadoes advance to the region final in 2009.
OH Berkley Whaley, Jr., Lakewood: The St. Petersburg Times' 2009 player of the year and oral commitment to Florida could leave as one of the best players the county has ever produced by the time her Spartan career is finished.
Preseason top five
1. East Lake: Eagles return all but one starter from last season's region semifinal team. Offense has the chance to be special with Brittnay Estes and Jackie Wegner on the outside, and Lauran Eschenroeder and Brianna McComeskey in the middle.
2. Clearwater: A coaching change — former Tornadoes junior varsity coach Kara Betourne takes over for Joe Dixon — right before the season isn't ideal, but Clearwater has too much talent not to make a postseason run like it did a year ago.
3. Palm Harbor University: The Hurricanes will miss the ability and energy provided by Cassie Roy and Cassie Wilkinson, who both graduated, but there are plenty of youngsters ready to fill the void.
4. Indian Rocks Christian: Is this the year IRC makes it past Tampa Prep after three straight region semifinal losses to the Terrapins? This might be the most talented Golden Eagles squad in school history.
5. Lakewood: With the ubertalented Berkley Whaley, the Spartans are a threat in any match, although how deep they go in the playoffs will depend on how quickly some of their younger players develop.
On the bubble: Clearwater Central Catholic, Countryside, Northeast, Northside Christian, Seminole
Thursday: East Lake at Palm Harbor University — The season starts with a bang when these two rivals meet in front of a raucous, always-packed crowd.
Sept. 9: East Lake at Clearwater — Eagles will be looking for redemption after last season's shocking region semifinal loss.
Sept. 16: Clearwater at Palm Harbor University — Early season test will be an indicator of how good each of these teams could be.
Sept. 20: Lakewood at Clearwater — North meets South in this matchup of possible Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship participants.
Oct. 15-16: Mustang Invitational — The county's best local tournament annually features some of the best teams from the area and beyond.