Friday, January 19, 2018

Steinbrenner volleyball continues winning ways under new coach

While it might be a short tradition as far as traditions go, the Steinbrenner Warrior girls volleyball team continues to build, even after going through three coaches and three classifications in just four short years.

The school itself opened in the fall of 2009. Under Staci Elias, the Warriors went 24-5, winning the Class 4A, District 9 title. The next year, under Elias, they went 18-10 and repeated as 4A-9 champs.

Last year, they had a coaching change in Jennifer Graham but still went 24-6 and made it all the way to the regional semifinals after jumping from Class 4A to Class 7A.

In 2012, Graham returned to Alabama with her husband, and Miranda Powell, the team's most powerful outside hitter and team captain, moved on to Florida Atlantic University. Top libero Cary Anne Bame and frontline player Audrey Clifford also graduated, leaving three starting spots as well as a coaching position vacant.

Enter Coach Laura Stegenga, whose career includes club coaching stints with the Tampa Elite and Tampa Storm, where she coached four of the 10 Warriors on the current roster.

She coached sophomore 6-1 middle hitter Lauren Heldt (50 total blocks in 2011) and sophomore setter Brooke Royals while they were together on Tampa Elite's U14 team.

Stegenga also coached junior setter Casey McLean and senior outside hitter Madison Seuzeneau (341 kills in 2011) when they were on an earlier Tampa Storm U14 team.

The familiarity bolstered the confidence Steinbrenner athletic director Eddie Henderson had in hiring Stegenga.

"We knew replacing Jennifer (Graham) was going to be real tough but Laura (Stegenga) brought a structured program and a stellar resume," Henderson said. "It was something we could not overlook."

The effect on the morale of the team hit an all-time high when the announcement was made.

"I was so excited. Taylor (Perez) called me to tell me and we were just jumping up and down," Royals said. "We already had a history of friendship. I'm so happy that I get to see her every day now."

Perez is a sophomore JV player who should also benefit from Stegenga as head coach.

"When I walked into the gym for the first time, I thought to myself, 'I can't believe this is my gym and that I get to work with these girls every day' " Stegenga said.

Coming into a program where you've already coached almost half of your players and most of your key starters is a big deal in any sport.

"Those girls (Seuzeneau, McLean, Heldt, Royals) are more relaxed with me. I'm not a new coach to them," Stegenga said. "They've got the rest of the team on board to play for me."

It seems to be working. After knocking off Freedom in straight sets Thursday, the Warriors have kept their unbeaten district record intact. The Warriors have never lost a district match and have only lost one set in their four-year history.

They might be 7-3 but the record is deceiving. All three losses came at the East Coast Invitational against out-of-area teams. The fabulous four are key elements. Royals and McLean lead the team in assists. McLean has developed a nasty drop-serve. Heldt is a force to be reckoned with at the net, and Seuzeneau has evolved into more of a utility player.

"I trust (Seuzeneau) at every position on the court," Stegenga said.

However, other elements have evolved around this strong core to help position Steinbrenner to make an even deeper playoff push in 2012. Junior Rachel Mathison has taken over as the primary outside hitter, notching 60 kills prior to the Freedom game, where she added 7 or 8 unofficially. Junior Madison Powell, Miranda's younger sister, is developing into a powerful right-side hitter as well as backup at the net for Heldt.

Sophomore Avery Bradshaw has the second most kills on the team and Stegenga says Bradshaw is one of those athletes who can "jump out of the gym."

With Freedom out of the way, the Warriors seem poised to not only continue their unbeaten district sweep but potentially get to the state tournament in Kissimmee this November. It's what they have their sights set on.

"With (Stegenga) here, I feel like we can go even further, all the way to states," Heldt said. "It starts here."


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