Back in the seventh and eighth grades, Joy Perez was an elusive volleyball player. At practice, it was almost as if she wasn't even there. The coach would call for the setters to line up, and Perez would disappear.
"I would always hide," she said. "I hated setting."
Until Linda McQuade entered the picture. The Hudson coach took Perez, made her asetter her freshman year, had her back up 1992 Suncoast Player of the Year Jennifer Ball for two years, then this year gave her the team.
The result? Perez, just a junior, has become the best setter in the whole county.
"It's a terrible thing I did, making her set," said McQuade with a sly smile.
In only her first year as a starter, Perez has helped keep a team with few returners above water heading into tonight's Class 4A, District 7 tournament opener against Pasco at 8 p.m.
Her newfound love for setting, however, has been an acquired taste. She describes herself as once being "a terrible player. I couldn't serve. I couldn't pass. I was pretty bad."
But things have changed. "I grew to like it," said the perpetually smiling Perez.
When the year started, there was plenty of pressure for the new starter, who served as a defensive specialist her first year at Hudson. The Cobras were 25-2 last season, and Ball was considered the best setter on the North Suncoast. So all eyes were on her replacement.
"People we're telling me, "Boy, you have big shoes to fill,' " Perez said. "But I was like, "No, I don't. I have my own shoes to fill.' "
So Perez, a standout defender and server, went about making people forget about Ball. She shattered her predecessor's school record for assists in a season, 1,371-1,249, and has just about equalled Ball's status among coaches.
"She's excellent," said Land O'Lakes coach Jerry Stacy. "One of the best."
"The best," McQuade corrected. "I think she's the best in the county, and not just because she's mine.
4A-7 at a glance
When: Today, Thursday, and Friday.
Where: Land O'Lakes High School.
Schedule: Wednesday _ Game 1: Central (11-11) vs. Zephyrhills (9-13), 6 p.m.; Game 2: Hudson (14-8) vs. Pasco (0-19), 8 p.m.; Thursday _ Game 3: Hernando (24-2) vs. Game 1 winner, 6 p.m.; Game 4: Land O'Lakes (22-6) vs. Game 2 winner; Friday _ Championship game: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 6 p.m.
Outlook: If the tournament follows the seedings, Land O'Lakes should meet Hernando in the final. The only two Gator losses in the district have been to the Leopards, and each time Land O'Lakes squandered a one-game lead. Hernando, which plays its best ball when behind, has said it would like to see Land O' Lakes one more time.
Meantime, defending district runner-up Hudson stands in the Gators' path (assuming it beats winless Pasco tonight), and played Land O' Lakes to three games last week.
Zephyrhills has been up and down, going three with Land O'Lakes and River Ridge, and has beaten tonight's opponent, Central. And the Bears have won four of five, and in their loss took Citrus to 19-17 in the second game. Plus, they beat Hernando, the Leopards' only district loss, in straight games.