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A volleyball coach for all 20 seasons

Anne Balderson went to her office at Clearwater High School last week and noticed a lot of items were gone. Her desk and chairs and memorabilia had been removed as the school started repairing the roof of Jack Wilson Memorial gymnasium, which was damaged from a storm two weeks ago.

The office was empty except for the hundreds of student pictures tacked onto the wall. They are Balderson's reminder of her 20 years as the Tornado volleyball coach, the only coach the program has had.

"Those pictures will always be with me," Balderson said. "Those are my treasures."

She has won 15 conference titles and 15 district titles and had four teams advance to the state tournament. If Clearwater wins the regional today, there will be another trip to the state tournament.

But success on the court is not what motivates Balderson. No banners are hanging. She remembers no records. Instead, she focuses on the development of her players. She remembers what they did in the classroom and what they are doing after high school.

"I've had some just absolutely wonderful students that have been through the program," Balderson said.

A Wisconsin native, Balderson came to Clearwater High in 1977 and started the volleyball program the next year. She coached varsity basketball for seven years but decided to concentrate on volleyball because her schedule became too hectic. Balderson never intended to staywith either team this long, but she became so attached to volleyball that it was difficult to leave.

So Balderson stayed, and her teams kept winning. But for all the conference and district titles, there is one thing Clearwater has never been able to do: win a state title. Tonight the Tornadoes can move one step closer to their goal as they travel to Fort Myers for what is considered the toughest regional in the state.

Clearwater (29-0), ranked No. 2 in Class 5A and the only undefeated team in the state, plays No. 3 Durant at 4 p.m. If the Tornadoes win, they will meet the winner between top-ranked Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas and Fort Myers in the championship at 8. The winner advances to the state tournament in Lakeland next week.

"It will certainly be difficult," Balderson said. "When you advance this far, all the teams are good, and the teams we play are some of the best."

Clearwater has been practicing at the Clearwater YMCA to prepare for today's trip. Some of Balderson's former players have stopped by practices and matches the past two weeks, offering advice and encouragement.

"She is amazing," said assistant coach Kelly Goodwin, who played for Balderson from 1986-89. "There is so much history and it makes you want to be a part of it. I think she'll keep coaching for a long, long time."

Volleyball regionals

Class 5A, Region I (South)

WHERE: Fort Myers High School, 2635 Cortez Blvd.

DIRECTIONS: Take I-75 south to Exit 27 (Tucker's Grade). Go west to U.S. 41 and head south for 20-25 minutes and go over the bridge that crosses the Caloosahatchee River. After the bridge, turn right at Llewellyn and left at Newton. The school will be on the left.

SCHEDULE: Clearwater vs. Durant, 4 p.m.; Fort Myers vs. St. Thomas Aquinas, 6; Championship, 8.

OUTLOOK: The Tornadoes are 29-0, ranked No. 2 in the Class 5A state volleyball poll and are the the only undefeated team in the state. They beat Durant in a tournament last month and beat St. Thomas Aquinas to advance to the state tournament last year. Clearwater is without players Diana Paulk, Samantha Hawk and Dana Vickery, who suffered season-ending injuries. Freshmen Katy Barber and Melanie Custer have taken over as starters.