The biggest concern at the start of Clearwater Central Catholic's season was how to replace hitters Morgan O'Brien and Kalyn Baird - who each totaled more than 300 kills on last year's region finalist team.
Coach Stephen Shepherd knew his team would be just fine at setter, with senior Casey Moore poised to take over full time for Megan Miller. And libero was locked down by senior Rachel Miller.
But how would sophomore hitters Shea Hamilton, Rachel Odell, Katie Moore and Sara Brown fit in? Turns out, just fine.
Katie Moore, who at 6-foot-3 played as a freshman, leads CCC with 221 kills. Hamilton is not far behind with 219. Odell has 212 and Brown 128. Hamilton, Odell and Brown, who played junior varsity last season, clearly took little time adjusting.
"We're really proud of them and the way they've stepped up," Casey Moore said. "They ... bring a lot of fire to the team. Their kills really pick the team up. We're lucky to have them."
Katie Moore, Hamilton and Odell are the main threats, especially at net. Katie is a blocking machine, with 131 this season, averaging just more than one per game. Her sister, senior Christy, isn't far behind with 106.
And Katie's kills are usually slam dunks.
"The more touches we can get (Katie), the better," Shepherd said. "We need to keep feeding her."
Odell is more of a finesse hitter. She tries to size up the defense and find the open space.
"I'm more of a strategist, trying to figure out where to hit it," Odell said. "I'd like to be able to hit it with power someday, but right now that's how I play."
Then there's the 5-8 Hamilton, who is more of a pure power hitter.
"I go after it," she said. "I like to hit it hard and see what will happen."
With a triple threat up front, CCC got past nemesis Fort Myers Evangelical Christian and into the Class 3A state semifinal against Gainesville St. Francis Catholic. The Marauders last made the state tournament in 1989.
Shepherd knew if his team was going to take the next step, his sophomores would have to play like seniors.
"I think the hitters have gotten better as the season has gone along," Shepherd said. "Last year when they were on JV, it was easy for them to just swing as hard as they can; it was going to be a kill. They weren't facing 16-, 17-year-old girls who were bigger and stronger. There's been a transition where they've had to learn to be consistent."
Of course, the season's success is more than the sophomores. Miller has 684 digs, just more than seven per game. Casey Moore has racked up 789 assists.
"(Casey) knows their sweet spots and how to set them," Shepherd said. "She's been amazing all season."
The Marauders' young players have showed no signs of intimidation. After dropping the first game to Evangelical on Saturday, CCC came back to win two straight and the nerve-racking fifth - on the road. Armed with confidence from that game, the Marauders like their chances at state.
"I think the regional championship game was when we really came together," Hamilton said. "I think that will set the tone for Friday's game."
Rodney Page can be reached at email@example.com.
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Class 3A state semifinal
Clearwater Central Catholic (23-7) vs. Gainesville St. Francis Catholic (25-4)
When/where: 10 a.m. Friday; Silver Spurs Arena, Kissimmee
Scouting report: St. Francis junior outside hitter Allison Benton is the team leader in kills (343) and digs (248). Senior middle blocker Kathryn Herrington leads the team with 77 blocks and has 209 kills. Junior setter Farah Rajaee makes the offense go with 609 assists and has 74 aces. ... St. Francis ended Tallahassee MaclayÕs run of five straight state semifinal appearances in the region final. "TheyÕll win (state). Hands down they will," Maclay coach Erica Bunch told the Gainesville Sun.
Last playoff appearances: CCC lost to Fort Myers Evangelical Christian 15-25, 25-17, 17-25, 14-25 in the region final last year. St. Francis lost to Gainesville P.K. Yonge 15-25, 19-25, 23-25 in the region semifinals last year.
Last state championship: CCC Ñ 1985. St. Francis Ñ None