WESLEY CHAPEL — When Wiregrass Ranch High volleyball coach Mindy Kantor takes her place on the Bulls' bench before Tuesday's season opener against Fivay, she will find herself looking at a court of mostly new faces.
For Kantor, rebuilding periods are nothing new. She has been through them many times throughout her career.
This one, however, will be much different for the eighth-year coach as the Bulls are coming off their best season.
Led by the school's all-time leader in kills, Grace Olsen, Wiregrass won a program-record 21 matches and earned its first trip to the postseason as the Class 7A, District 8 runnerup.
But after losing Olsen and eight other seniors to graduation, Wiregrass returns only three players with varsity experience: senior middle hitter Connor Bennett, junior middle blocker Courtney Rottum and sophomore right side Madison Besterfield.
"(Last year) was probably my most talented squad I've ever coached in seven years here," Kantor said. "You can't compare the two teams. We have talent this year. They just have to find themselves together."
While that may seem like an onerous task, Kantor believes the returning trio provides a solid core of talent and leadership that she can use to help build her roster of mainly JV call-ups.
"I think it's going to be a good mix of girls again," she said.
Besterfield, who had 111 kills and 104 digs as a starter last season, has emerged as the team's most boisterous leader, which initially surprised Kantor.
During preseason workouts last year, Kantor could tell Besterfield felt unsure of herself around the upperclassmen. But as the season progressed, Kantor said Besterfield became more comfortable and, almost naturally, adopted the role.
"She's definitely matured and she's a good leader on that court," Kantor said. "It's so good to finally see that she has that confidence in herself and be that sophomore — no less — leader and take the reins."
Besterfield said the success of last season has inspired the team to get better.
"Having a great team last year like that was really awesome and I'm glad I had that opportunity," she said. "This year, I really hope we can just focus on building the team and making us stronger for the future."
Even with the influx of young and unproven talent, competing in a district headlined by last year's 7A region champion Steinbrenner — which Kantor refers to as Wiregrass' "nemesis" — should provide even more motivation for the Bulls to remain competitive and return to the playoff conversation.
"Knowing our team, everyone has positive attitudes and everyone wants to get better," Bennett said. "We want to beat these teams. But if this year is not our year, we will get there eventually."
Kantor won't count out any surprises, though.
"There's always that Cinderella team that rebuilds and just plays the right game at the right time," she said.
"If they believe, then they can do it. They just have to fight."