The best setter in Hernando County, and quite possibly on the North Suncoast, is Hernando High's Julie Gibson. She is uh, wait a minute. Actually, the best might be Catherine Lovett, who also goes to Hernando High. Hey, this is getting kind of tricky.
Okay, let's just keep it in the family and leave it at this: The best setter on the North Suncoast probably plays for Hernando High School.
Picking between Gibson and Lovett, who are step-cousins, is like choosing between chocolate ice cream and chocolate ice cream.
Both dig with equal determinedness. They set with comparable aplomb. And combined, they provide Hernando with stellar senior leadership from the sport's most critical position.
"It's nice having both of them out there," said Leopards coach Kimi Hellenberg.
Real nice. The Leopards are 24-2 heading into tonight's Class 4A, District 7 tournament at Land O'Lakes High School. They already have won the Gulf Coast Conference title this year, along with the Suncoast Classic volleyball tournament, and now look to add a second straight district title.
The steady hands of Lovett and Gibson could decide whether that happens. And not only do they think it will, but they want it to happen at the best team's expense.
"We want the toughest game," said Lovett. "Whoever the best team is, that's who we want to play."
It's the kind of coolness and confidence that has made Hernando the North Suncoast's best team. Twice Hernando has rallied from a set down to beat Land O'Lakes, and it avenged an early-season loss to Citrus with a commanding win two weeks ago. But credit much of the confidence to the Suncoast Classic championship game win in which the Leopards rallied from 14-3 down in the third game to beat Orlando Oak Ridge.
"When they came into the tourney and were warming up, I thought, "What are we doing here?' " said Lovett.
"They could slam the ball," added Gibson, "and were all 5-foot-8, 5-9."
" and had nice verticals," interrupted Lovett.
Both girls said there was only one option at that point _ to invoke a Hernando motto of sorts that the team follows: "It was time to either play hard or go home."
Hernando won 22-20. And except for a slip against Central, the Leopards have been dominant ever since.
"They (the setters) were probably one of the ones that brought that forth," said Hellenberg of the Oak Ridge comeback. "Those two don't ever give up, that's for sure."
Confidence has never been a problem for the Hernando setters. They ooze it. Both speak candidly about wanting the difficult game ("I hate it when we play a game we win so easily," said Gibson), how they seem to play better when the team is down a game, how they love to win.
Gibson is the more stoic of the two, rarely smiling on the court and always searching for that perfect set. It doesn't matter if it's put away for a point; if it wasn't perfect, she's not grinning.
"I don't celebrate until we win," she said. "Too many teams get happy when they lead 11-0. I guess a lot of people tell me I'm too serious."
Especially when she's sewing, a favorite pastime. She has made two dresses, three shirts and a skirt, and has worn them all to school. Plus, the matching scrunchies the Leopards wear in their hair are Gibson's handiwork.
Lovett, on the other hand, is the loose one, and prefers whipping up Italian dishes. "She makes great salads," said Gibson.
"Cat's got the same intensity as Julie, but shows it in a different way," said Hellenberg.
As for on-court communication, a potentially prickly situation with two equally good setters, the two know each other's every move, although "sometimes we still run into each other," laughed Lovett.
"Whoever is in the back is the setter," said Gibson. "And if I'm in the back and yell help, she's supposed to get it."
"They work very well together," Hellenberg said.
Both players, who are excellent defenders as well as offensive playmakers, are ready for the final phase _ along with five other seniors _ of good high school careers. Hellenberg thinks they will both play beyond high school, but for now Lovett and Gibson would settle for a state championship.
That should end any talk about who's the best.