Halfway through the Pinellas County volleyball season, one fact has become clear. Countryside is good. Really good. We won't find out how good until the playoffs roll around, but the Cougars have the best chance of any team to capture the county's first state championship since Clearwater in 2000. Beyond the Cougars, there are eight or nine county teams capable of making a deep run in the playoffs. With the midpoint of the season upon us, let's take a look at the top story lines from the first half:
Cougars queens of the county
Can anyone prevent Countryside from going undefeated during the regular season? Heck, can anybody even take a game off the Cougars? Countryside won't scare anyone with its height — its tallest starter, Madison Truluck, stands just 5-9 — but it is an extremely efficient team. Truluck is the county's smartest attacker. She can hit as hard as anyone but is equally adept placing the ball and hitting short when it's available. Outside hitter Davionna DiSalvatore has emerged as a more than capable complement to Truluck. Mercedez Wilgus is a standout blocker, and Sara Wright has been near-perfect setting the ball. Countryside will be challenged this weekend in the Bishop Moore Invitational, which features 4A state champ Jensen Beach. But in county, there's none better than the Cougars.
The injury bug
First, Countryside's Megan Siminski tears her ACL and meniscus before the Cougars' match with Palm Harbor University. Then, Northside Christian's Kayla Walton reinjures her left knee during warmups against Indian Rocks Christian. Both starters are lost for the season. (Side note: I watched both of these injuries while waiting for each match to start. I don't think I'm bad luck, but from now on I'll start entering the gym after the national anthem.) Countless other players are dinged or playing hurt. Countryside is doing well without Siminski. Gia Tomossone and Christina Berry have stepped up in her absence. The jury's still out on Northside.
Golden Eagles soaring
Did anyone think the Golden Eagles would be 10-4 at this point, with victories over Clearwater Central Catholic and Academy of the Holy Names after losing five starters and graduating eight seniors from last season's region semifinal squad? The reloading Golden Eagles feature one of the county's fastest rising stars in uber-talented hitter Marisa Moralobo. Kenzie Reynolds, the lone returning starter, provides leadership and is IRC's best all-around player. Freshman Madison Loebel and senior transfer Sarah Bash give IRC plenty of height up front, and Kaley Dohme has been getting the job done both as a setter and a server.
Pinellas' version of the NFC East
Three of the county's top seven teams reside in Class 5A, District 9, where Palm Harbor University, Clearwater and East Lake are candidates for deep playoff runs. The early edge for the regular-season district crown goes to PHU, which owns wins over the Tornadoes and Eagles. The Hurricanes have plenty of height up front in Morgan Kosterlitz and Leah McNary and are led by their two junior Cassies: Wilkinson, the setter, and Roy, the attacker. Clearwater, with a win over East Lake, sits in second place. All three teams have played each other once; Round 2 begins today when East Lake travels to Clearwater.
Top 5 remaining regular-season matches
Clearwater Central Catholic at Indian Rocks, today: Both teams are coming off statement wins on Tuesday. IRC won an earlier meeting 2-1 at the Keswick Invitational.
Clearwater at Countryside, Wednesday: Could be the last chance for a county team to beat the Cougars.
PHU at East Lake, Oct. 9: Their first meeting was the most entertaining match of the season so far.
PHU at Clearwater, Oct. 14: The Hurricanes won in five over the Tornadoes a week ago. In all likelihood, this match will determine the top seed for the 5A-9 district tournament.
Northside Christian at Academy of the Holy Names, Oct. 14: The Mustangs' last test before districts.