LARGO — The volleyball barely cleared the net and seemed destined for a hole in the Palm Harbor University defensive formation.
For Hurricanes setter Cassie Wilkinson, instinct took over.
Wilkinson dove for the ball as it fell toward the opening. Sliding across the hardwood face first, eliciting a squeak resembling the sound of a referee's whistle, Wilkinson intercepted the ball inches from the floor, popping it up to the closest teammate, who then set outside hitter Cassie Roy for a thunderous kill that left the opposition scurrying for cover.
Minutes later, the same scenario repeated itself. Wilkinson sprawled on the floor, digging a ball. Roy, waiting along the periphery, receiving the set and punishing the ball into the open court.
Mind you, the Hurricanes were playing a preseason game against 2A state semifinalist Tampa Prep, a game that had no bearing on PHU's record.
"For me the most fun thing about volleyball is falling down and getting a ball in the air," Wilkinson said. "If the other team has the momentum and you go all-out crazy to get a ball, then suddenly you have the momentum.
"Being part of volleyball is being willing to sacrifice anything to get the ball."
That's the attitude of the Hurricanes' senior superstars Roy and Wilkinson, fearless warriors who will stop at nothing to win.
"They're unsatisfied with just the okay play. They want to make the great play every time," coach Tara Kuk said. "When you have a setter and hitter with the same mentality, it works out really great."
That mentality is a big reason PHU enters the 2009 season as one of the favorites to go deep into the playoffs.
"We have that trust," said Roy, a four-year starter. "We're a very competitive, hungry team.
"I think we have the best team since I've been at PHU."
Five to watch
Davionna DiSalvatore, Sr., OH, Countryside: A force in every aspect of the game, DiSalvatore's defense, passing and ball-striking skills are unparalleled.
Marisa Moralobo, Jr., OH, Indian Rocks Christian: Golden Eagles coach Mark Foster said Moralobo's vertical is 27 inches and, at 5-foot-7, she can just about touch a 10-foot basketball rim.
Andria Tagarelli, Sr., Libero, East Lake: Four-year starter was ranked No. 1 libero in Florida and No. 7 nationally by MaxPreps, according to Eagles coach Terry Small.
Kayla Walton, Sr., OH, Northside Christian: USF commit is recovered from a knee injury that ended her 2008 season and will once again lead a strong Mustangs squad.
Berkley Whaley, So., OH, Lakewood: Fab freshman a year ago, Whaley is ready to take her game to the next level. Will be counted on to lead Lakewood after the graduation of Evan Ligon and her sister Taylor.
Preseason top five
1. Palm Harbor University: Hurricanes have a good mix of senior leadership in Cassie Roy and Cassie Wilkinson and promising young talent. Watch for junior middle Leah McNary, who was injured most of last season but is poised to break out.
2. East Lake: With the most talented collection of underclassmen in the county combined with the senior leadership of Tagarelli, the Eagles mean business in 2009.
3. Northside Christian: Senior setter Kayla Turner will miss the first few games recovering from a torn meniscus sustained seven weeks ago, but once she returns watch out. The region finalist Mustangs have size and experience.
4. Clearwater: First-year coach Joe Dixon inherits a talented squad that might be the deepest in the county. The Tornadoes were bolstered in the middle by the addition of Leah Mitchell, a senior transfer from River Ridge who was a Times first-team North Suncoast selection in 2008.
5. Countryside: No player's loss will be felt more than Madison Truluck's, but the Cougars have a strong nucleus in DiSalvatore and junior setter Sara Wright and are always one of the hardest-working teams in the county.
Palm Harbor University at Clearwater, Sept. 8: No longer district rivals after PHU's jump up to Class 6A but still as good a matchup as you'll find all season.
Palm Harbor University at East Lake, Sept. 9: First meeting of the season between these bitter rivals in what has become the county's best rivalry.
Mustang Invitational at Northside Christian, Oct. 16-17: Field includes locals Clearwater, CCC, East Lake and Northside plus 2A state champ First Academy, Class A runnerup Lake Worth Christian, defending tournament champion Warner Christian and Orangewood Christian.
Indian Rocks Christian at Clearwater Central Catholic, Oct. 20: IRC's Moralobo and Madison Loebel and CCC's Mary Michael Toups and Vanessa Annoni will ensure this is a star-studded affair.
Battle of the Bays at East Lake, Oct. 24: Northside Christian and East Lake will each play Berkeley Prep and Durant in this four-team dual meet that provides a challenging tuneup heading into the playoffs.