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SUNLAKE RISING ABOVE

The Seahawks' improved volleyball team is eyeing its first playoff trip.

Sarah Sprague is the senior leader of one of the North Suncoast's top volleyball teams this season, but things haven't always been so rosy.

Sprague recalls how things went her first two years at Sunlake High School. She played plenty as a freshman on a team that went 6-18 - a win total that was greater than in the school's first four years combined. Then came a 4-17 sophomore effort.

"When people saw us on the schedule it was 'Oh yay, Sunlake, it's gonna be easy.' But now it's 'Oh crap, Sunlake,'" Sprague said.

So far all of the Seahawks' county opponents have ended up muttering, if not those exact words, something to that effect. Sunlake has not lost to a Pasco County team, getting a big five-set win over River Ridge last week to go with a previous five-setter against district opponent Tarpon Springs. It all has the Seahawks eyeing their first trip to the playoffs.

That's pretty heady territory for a program that managed 15 wins total from its first six years of existence. But that's the belief instilled by Deann Newton, who took over as Seahawks coach two seasons ago.

Newton had quite the break from coaching. She headed the Mitchell program from 2001-03, then life took over as Newton raised her kids (Austin and Taryn). The itch to get back into volleyball led her to Sunlake.

Which led to a change in the culture there.

"I knew it was going to take some time," she said. "They were used to just showing up in August, which is not the way you do things if you want to win."

That meant offseason conditioning and open gymnasium workouts. And more conditioning.

Sprague saw a pronounced focus on fundamentals. Gianna Basulto, the team's third-leading hitter behind Sprague and Kelsey Riquelme, agrees, saying blocking and serve receiving have been the marked areas of concentration. Newton admits not everyone bought in right away.

"But when I do something, I do it 100 percent," Newton said.

She doesn't take full credit, noting she inherited a strong group of freshmen, now sophomore regulars including Nelly Diaz, Hannah Presson, Colby Coats and Emily Schoonover. Riquelme, a junior, leads the county in aces. The only other senior besides Sprague, Shaira Sanabria, makes a formidable setting duo with Coats.

That talent, and the fairly quick buying-in process, have things looking way up. In fact, for Tuesday's critical home contest against Fivay, Newton's even thinking about opening the bleachers on the south side of the gymnasium, something that's never been necessary.

"Coach is so excited," Basulto said. "She's really focused on districts. Right now we're not worried about winning, we're worried about improving so that throughout the process we'll be ready for districts."

The Seahawks have been winning anyway. Entering Wednesday they were 12-2, the only slip-ups in a Wharton tournament where Sunlake lost to Plant City and later the hosts. The Plant City match came the day after the emotional marathon against Tarpon. The Seahawks bounced back to take out Bishop McLaughlin.

And they'll get a chance for revenge against Wharton on Saturday. Sunlake is taking part in the 16-team Lakeland Volleyball Invitational.

It will go as another five quality matches leading up to the Fivay contest, which will likely decide the top seed for the 5A-8 district tournament.

Sprague, who had 21 kills in the recent defeat of River Ridge, has shown immense improvement, much to the delight of Newton.

"She's just a fun kid. Her intensity, her heart ... you can just see she loves the game of volleyball. It's only my second year coaching her, but she has just gotten so much smarter as a player," Newton said.

Sprague says her biggest area of improvement has been defense.

"For my club team (Tampa Elite) I really don't play defense, because I'm just a hitter," she said. "But I played a lot of beach volleyball in the summer, and my defense and overall game has improved immensely."

The same can be said for the Seahawks.

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