Count Gary Larkin as a fan of Pasco County volleyball.
The Hillsborough Community College coach has signed eight _ yes, eight _ county seniors to scholarships, assuring at least two-thirds of his team next season will hail from Pasco County.
"I'm excited about all of them," said Larkin, who took HCC to the state tournament in 2003, his first season. "In the past, we've always had a couple of (Pasco players), but this year, well, it speaks to the improvements made by all the county's high schools."
HCC signed Hudson's Jessica Borrello, Sarah Prose and Amanda Kuerner; River Ridge's Alyssa Breviario and Hailey Plunkett; Land O'Lakes' Erica Cagle and Brittany Hipps and Wesley Chapel's Lauren Valdez.
Larkin, who coached at Plant High in Tampa before joining HCC in 2002, said he believes the level of competition in Pasco is on par with Hillsborough.
"Perhaps their reputation wasn't as strong as Hillsborough in the past, but I think that's changed drastically," Larkin said. "People now see them on equal terms with schools you see in Hillsborough."
Of the eight, two were named to the Times all-county first team and were among the 14 honored by coaches on the all-Sunshine Athletic Conference team. Those two are Borrello, an outside hitter who led Hudson to a region final, and Breviario, whose leadership as a setter guided the injury-depleted Knights to a region final.
Of the other six, only Plunkett was among nine players honored by county coaches as a SAC honorable mention. HCC has only two returning scholarship players, outside hitter Debbie Edwards and setter Alina Pasciuta, a Bloomingdale graduate who will compete with Breviario at setter.
"All of them have the potential to contribute right away. It's too early to tell," Larkin said. "One of the reasons I recruited the surrounding counties so heavily is that we only get the girls for two years, so we want to be comfortable in the Tampa area. If you can sign a local player, you know they love it here and you can worry less about losing a talented player to homesickness."
Larkin said strong endorsements helped him with the Pasco recruits. Cagle's sister, Amanda, played at HCC from 2001-02, and Wesley Chapel's Jamie Freund was a major contributor during the past two seasons. Despite offers from four-year programs, she will put volleyball aside and enroll at South Florida this fall, Larkin said.
Larkin was a founding director of the Tampa Sandspurs club team, and his relationships there led him to Valdez, Breviario, Plunkett and Hipps, who played with the club this year.
"It's a good local program for them," River Ridge coach Heidi Castelamare said. "They're getting two good years of good solid volleyball knowledge, and I think it's a positive that they're going together. So they're more comfortable with that. I can't remember this many kids from the county, so it's a big step up for us."
These eight join three other county players who already have signed. Mitchell's Katelen Dixon will play at Tampa, River Ridge's Krystal Dennis at Pasco-Hernando Community College and Gulf's Kortney Newton at Webber.