If you had told Christine Susi at the beginning of the season that the Citrus volleyball team would open tournament play tonight in Dunnellon as the undefeated No. 1 seed in Class 4A, District 7, she might have started laughing in your face.
She's not laughing now. And neither is anybody else.
Citrus, the team with only two senior returning starters and a bench full of young players, has made a surprising run in its district, finishing with an 8-0 record.
The Hurricanes will play the winner of Tuesday's Dunnellon-Lake Weir game at 7 tonight in the third game of the tournament. Lecanto, the No. 2 seed, will play third-seeded Crystal River at 5:30 p.m. in the Dunnellon gymnasium.
"It's really unexpected because we were just so young and inexperienced," said Susi, a senior outside hitter. "Everybody came together, worked hard and busted their butt to make this happen. It's fun being No. 1, but you feel like you have to live up to that reputation."
At the start of the season, Citrus coach Pat King wasn't sure what her team's reputation would be by the end of the year. The team was clouded by uncertainty because of its youth. With the exception of tri-captains Susi, Jessica Davila and junior outside hitter Diana Bierley, there wasn't a whole lot of of experience on the squad.
"Since nobody really expected it, I wanted to make sure we got there," Davila said. "That's what motivated me."
So while what has happened was unexpected, it isn't enough to make the team rest on its laurels. For Susi and Davila, this is the beginning of the final run for a state championship. Winning the regular-season district title was nice, they said, but it's not enough.
"This is my senior year and I want to go out with a bang," Davila said.
To go any farther than Dunnellon, the Hurricanes must either win the tournament, which concludes with the final at 6 p.m. Thursday, or finish as the runner-up to advance to regional competition.
Citrus has defeated every opponent it'll face in the tournament, but that's not an issue now.
"When you go into districts, everybody is a different team so we're ready for anything," Davila said. "It's all mental. We could expect anything from anybody. Now (tournament time) I don't even like to know how good they are. I don't like to know about their record or who their middle hitter is. I just want to go in and play."
The two seniors said Monday that you can't underestimate the importance of experience. That's why the team captains held a meeting with the rest of the players during Monday's practice to emphasize that tournament play is like nothing they've experienced during the regular season. For the most part, it's one and done. If you lose, you're out.
"Most of the players on our team are young, so they really don't know what to expect," Davila said. "We told them how different the tournament is from the regular season. We told them, now, the season starts all over. It doesn't matter what a team's record is."
In preparation for the post-season, the Hurricanes have made some adjustments, changes they hope will make them stronger in the long run.
"We've made a lot of changes in our rotations," Susi said. "We've been working hard to learn the changes and we finally hit the upside of the learning curve and we're starting to do better."
Coach King said she expects her team to be mentally ready to play tonight.
"I think they are excited," she said. "District is what you aim for the whole season. You always want to be playing well at this time."
Susi and Davila will enter the most crucial part of the season knowing in the back of their minds this is their last time around with Citrus High.
"It's all winding down, my career is ending and it's very depressing," Susi said half-jokingly. "It's been so fast. I don't ever remember districts coming this fast. But I think overall I'll play harder because I want to go as far as we can. And I know Jess and I will try our hardest to pump everybody up and make sure they understand how important this is to us. This is our last time."