With a trio of big hitters and a solid core of experience returning, Zephyrhills volleyball coach Pat Moul knew she had something good for this year. What she didn't have, however, was a setter.
That is, until one day when a shy girl from Bayamon, Puerto Rico walked into her gym to try out for the team.
Lizabeth Torres has in many ways been a savior. She has been the Bulldogs' top defender, the most spectacular offensive player, and a steadying force on what has become one of the county's best volleyball teams.
Now the big question: Can she take them to the state playoffs?
Tonight, the Class 4A, District 8 volleyball tournament begins at Hudson, and the Bulldogs (17-5, No. 9 in the state) will try to turn a good season into a great one.
Which will take an outstanding effort from Torres, who has been the county's most splendid surprise in her first season of high school volleyball.
"Oh yeah, we knew she'd be good," said Moul. "The whole thing for us was just to work her in the lineup and get her comfortable with everyone else."
When the season was just starting, Torres wasn't. She played behind Tracy Negoshian, who eventually lost confidence after a few bad outings and "realized Lizzy needed to be setting."
It was an easy decision for Moul, who thinks her setter compares with Hudson's Jill Perez, regarded as the county's best at that position. And some coaches in the county think Torres might even be better.
"She's not just a setter, she analyzes the game," Moul said. "And she analyzes pretty quick when she's on the court. For a lot of kids we've seen play or played against, there's not too many that analyze that quickly."
The quickness yields a lot of dinks and points for Torres. She is not your traditional setter, just there to set up the big hitters. Instead, she seems to have one eye on her hitters and another on the other side of the court.
When River Ridge played Zephyrhills earlier this season, Torres did not play and the Bulldogs lost. The second time around, with Torres in, they rolled to a win, their first ever over the Royal Knights.
"Is her," said Heidi Castelamare, the River Ridge coach. "She's an aggressive player. She's smart, has good court sense and is smart enough to catch us off guard and pop it over the net. She doesn't just go with the traditional bump, set and spike."
While her offensive play is not typical of setters, her defensive play may be more so. Torres' specialty has been the sensational save. The sophomore has shown an eerie knack for not only getting to bad passes, but for turning them into productive sets. And rarely does she dive for a ball on the court and not manage to pop it straight up where a teammate can get it over the net.
"If I kept track of that stat, it would be amazing," Moul said. "But if you go by saves, she's got the most on the team."
The stat is particularly important when you consider that Zephyrhills has struggled at times with its passing. But Torres manages to get the ball and get it up to the net where teammates like Amy Palmer, Kristen Schleicher and Loraine Clausnitzer can drive home the kills.
Torres learned her defensive tenacity and offensively minded style in Bayamon, where she starred on the 12-14 age group Junior Olympic team. According to Torres, her coach said she was the best setter for her age in the whole country. But she added shyly, "I don't know."
After moving to the states last year, she contemplated playing for the Tampa Bay Junior Volleyball Club. Instead, she elected to spend the year learning English. In July, her parents moved to Wesley Chapel, and Torres enrolled at Zephyrhills.
All of which just adds to her remarkable season. She didn't play last year. She is still learning English. And she's had to adjust to a different team and different style of play while performing in the most important position on the court.
Has it been difficult? Torres just smiles.
"It's been perfect."
AT A GLANCE
Class 5A, District 8
WHERE: At River Ridge.
WHEN: Today _ Land O'Lakes vs. Gulf, 6 p.m.; Ridgewood vs. Springstead, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday_ River Ridge vs. Gulf-Land O'Lakes winner, 6 p.m.; Tarpon Springs vs. Ridgewood-Springstead winner, 7:30 p.m. Friday _ Championship, 6 p.m.
OUTLOOK: The favorite is River Ridge, but it is not as clear-cut as in years past when this battle would usually be for second. The Royal Knights have been both good and bad this season. All the pieces are there, but a lack of consistency on defense has crippled an offensive attack that can be very good. Still, the Knights are expected by most of the coaches to reach the final. Ridgewood gave River Ridge a pair of tough fights this season, and if the Rams can get to the final, could pull off their first-ever volleyball championship. Land O'Lakes has big hitters and some power, but hasn't put anything together this season because of youth and inexperience. Gulf started slowly but has come on lately. Tarpon Springs is down this year, but has beaten River Ridge. All five of these teams have a reasonable chance of capturing the district title, or at least the runner-up spot. Springstead, though, doesn't. The Eagles are the only winless team in the district.
Class 4A, District 8
WHERE: At Hudson.
WHEN: Today _ Hernando vs. Pasco, 7 p.m. Wednesday _ Hudson vs. Hernando-Pasco winner, 6 p.m.; Zephyrhills vs. Central, 7:30 p.m. Thursday _ Championship, 7 p.m.
OUTLOOK: This tournament is full of promising matches and storylines. Hudson, which took third over the weekend at the Bishop Moore Invitational in Orlando and looked pretty good doing it, is still trying to find its feet after losing top hitter Kerri Rulison. But the Cobras should make it to the final barring an upset by Hernando or Pasco. The Pirates are much improved but will have trouble getting past Hernando, although they have beaten Central (which is 2-0 versus Hernando this year). Hernando lost the core of its district championship team of a year ago, but is still strong enough to give the Cobras fits. The big match will be Zephyrhills-Central. While the Bulldogs have been the better team this season and beaten the better teams, they haven't beaten the Bears. Central, meanwhile, is up and down (they lost to Pasco remember) and had a terrible showing at the Hudson Invitational, the same place the tournament this week will be played. A Central-Hudson final would be a good one, but so too would the Bulldogs-Cobras, considering the two split a pair of regular-season matches this year.
_ JOHN C. COTEY