Clearwater Central Catholic broke a long dry spell last season when it played in the Class 3A state tournament for the first time since 1989. With plenty of starters returning, and a trio of key transfers, the question this season is, now what?
"State championship," junior outside hitter Shea Hamilton said. "After what we did last season, that's our goal this season."
It is not an unrealistic goal.
The Marauders haven't won a state title in volleyball since 1985, but the 2013 version seems to have all the pieces in place.
Hamilton and fellow junior Katie Moore are two of the top frontline players in the area. Hamilton averaged nearly three kills per game as a sophomore thanks to her aggressive hitting.
Moore, at 6-foot-3, is a wall at the net. The Wake Forest commit averaged more than four blocks and 2.7 kills per game.
Hitters Rachel Odell and Sara Brown will also bolster the offense, and three transfers will help ease the sting of losing libero Rachel Miller and setter Casey Moore.
Junior setter Ashley Albers, who averaged 7.8 assists per game, and senior middle hitter Jenna Dykstra, who had 2.5 kills per game, transferred from Countryside. Setter Megan Kovach transferred from Calvary Christian.
"I think we'll be better offensively," coach Stephen Shepherd said. "We'll use both of our setters in different rotations. All the attackers last season were sophomores, and they've had a good club season. Defensively I think it will be a struggle at the beginning."
Some of Shepherd's concerns about team chemistry were eased this summer at the Team Camp tournament in Gainesville. The Marauders won the tournament against some top-notch teams, including Orlando First Academy, Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons and Gainesville Buchholz.
The players are hoping chemistry rolls right into the season.
"I don't think it will be a problem at all," Moore said. "A lot of us have played club together and we're comfortable with each other. We know that with hard work we can get back (to the state tournament)."
Shepherd has set up a difficult nonconference schedule that includes the Berkeley Premier Invitational, the Orlando Volleyball Academy High School Showcase and the Westminster Christian Invitational.
In 3A-9, CCC appears to the be the top team with competition coming from Calvary Christian and Indian Rocks Christian.
"I'd rather be something like 17-8 and in the regional finals tested," Shepherd said. "I want to play the toughest schedule possible."
A second straight trip to the state tournament is possible, but Shepherd wants to reserve judgment until his team proves something.
"Last year I was a little more optimistic," he said. "It was because of the senior leadership and the level of talent at setter and libero. Not that I have any less confidence this year, but those girls were battle-tested; I knew what I was getting.
"This team has played together a lot in club, but it's time to take the next step here. We'll have our ups and downs this year, but I'm cautiously optimistic."
Rodney Page can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @RodneyHomeTeam.