The new kids on the block are trying to take over the neighborhood.
The Tampa Bay Juniors "Black" 18-and-under Open Division team twice finished second in Junior Olympics qualifying tournaments earlier this year and earned a spot in the U.S. Junior Olympics Volleyball Championships, which begin Saturday at the Orange County Convention Center.
That's quite a feat for any club team, even more impressive when you consider that nine of the 10 girls on the team are 17-year-olds with a year of high school _ and another year of club ball _ remaining.
Playing against teams primarily made up of recent high school graduates, many headed to the nation's top college programs, Tampa Bay's youthful crew already has established itself as one of the nation's premier teams.
"Almost all of us played 16s (and under) last year, but we've been playing together since 14s," said Tampa Bay Black setter Danielle Faggion, a senior-to-be at Plant High. "Experience doesn't only come with age. We've played together long enough that we pretty much know how everybody plays and we can compensate for each other."
Tampa Bay Black finished third nationally at under-16s last year and though seedings for this year won't be released until today, they figure to be in the top half of the 32-team field after finishing second at both the national qualifiers in April at the Tampa Convention Center and the Lone Star Classic in Austin, Texas.
"You look at a team made up mostly of juniors and even if they're a talented group, you figure they should struggle their first year (at 18s)," said club director and team coach Randy Dagostino. "But they've played together so long, they've made a jump that I think has surprised everyone who has seen them play."
The team's goal is to finish higher than its seeding and perhaps crack into the top 10 this season, then return for a serious run at a national title next year, Dagostino and his players said.
"It doesn't matter whether we win or lose as long as we work hard each point," said Tampa Bay left side hitter Sarah Peifer. "If we play every point like it's a mini-game, have good positioning and don't let the ball hit the floor, we'll be doing our best."
The team's cohesion suffered earlier this month when outside hitter Dominique Philipp, a senior-to-be at Berkeley Prep, strained her back, but she returned earlier this week and pronounced herself healthy after helping the team to a victory in the Mizuno Volleyfest at Orlando.
"We've played some awful tough teams in preparation for the JOs," Dagostino said. "And with the results we've had, we feel we have the best junior team in the country. But there are about half a dozen teams that are the cream of the crop, then another dozen, which we're in, who comprise the second tier. There's nowhere to go for us but up."
Five players from Berkeley Prep, where Dagostino coaches the varsity, make up the nucleus of Tampa Bay Black. Four of the others attend other Tampa high schools. The only non-Hillsborough County resident is also the team's only senior: Emily Suter starred at Stuart Martin County and will attend Auburn University in the fall.
Player Pos. High school
Kerry Bridenback MB Berkeley Prep
Danielle Faggion S Plant
Regina Graham Def Tampa Prep
Lib Hobson S Berkeley Prep
Karla Jones OH Academy
Mary Leffers MH Berkeley Prep
Sarah Peifer OH Tampa Prep
Dominique Philipp OH Berkeley Prep
Jessica Sammis MH Berkeley Prep
Emily Suter OH Stuart Martin Co.