Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

Unbeaten King volleyball thrives thanks to chemistry, coaching continuity

TAMPA — King High senior Taylor Wooldridge remembers what it was like as a freshman at the end of the 2014 volleyball season.

Five-set match for a region semifinal victory. Packed house. Fans on their feet. Screaming at the heights of excitement.

"Fun," Wooldridge said. "It was a lot of fun."

Then steadily over the next few years — which involved five coaching changes, including three in the 2016 season alone — the excitement faded.

Until now.

The 2017 season, under first-year Lions coach Brian Gonzales, has featured a complete rejuvenation with a 14-0 record entering the week.

"We are back and we hope to see those stands full again like it was (at the end of 2014)," Wooldridge said. "We believe we can do it."

Why think otherwise?

King has a great setter in Julia Saxton, who dishes to great equal-opportunity hitters, including Wooldridge (committed to play beach volleyball next year at Jacksonville State University), Nelly Padilla, Stephanie Mohler and JoJo Sosa.

Defensively, the Lions look just as tough with the aforementioned at the net while libero Hayden Wooldridge digs everything that comes near her (294 digs through 14 games).

The best part, however, may be the Lion's chemistry and their ability to adjust an opponent's attack.

"This group is so smart and if you tell them something they pick it up right away," said Gonzales, who coached the previous five years at Academy at the Lakes. "I could tell within a couple of practices that this team could be really good. I didn't know how good, but I could tell they had tremendous potential."

The players, meantime, couldn't be much more thankful for Gonzales, who Saxton says is "tough but fair."

"We liked him right away because it was obvious from the first moment that he knew what he was doing," Saxton said. "He was in command. He's all business on the court but then he's also fun off the court."

After all those coaching changes, Taylor Wooldridge said, "We were so happy that (Gonzales) was with us because you could tell he was committed."

For now, the focus is firmly on playing a tough tournament this weekend at Wharton.

Gonzales believes his team could win it, but the Lions would have to pull off a couple of early victories without two key players who are taking the SAT on Saturday morning.

"We look forward to the challenge," Gonzales said. "Who knows? This group continues to improve so much every day. They just might be able to pull it off this weekend. I would never count this team out."

 
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