PALM HARBOR — No player on Palm Harbor University’s roster is taller than 5 feet 10. But with players like senior middle blocker Naomi Mack competing beyond their inches, this may be one of PHU’s better squads.
Before losing Tuesday to Manatee, a Class 8A-8 opponent, the Hurricanes (14-3) had not dropped a match in a month, a span of nine straight wins.
“I really didn’t know what to expect at the start,” said PHU coach Tara Kuk, who is in her 11th season. “I knew we had some girls that had worked really hard and improved. And then we ended up having a really good freshman class.”
That freshman class includes outside hitter Emma Strong, middle blocker Renee Mussler and outside hitter Julia Angelo.
But the epitome of PHU’s success this season is Mack.
At 5-8, Mack doesn’t fit the mold of a front-line player. It takes only a few points for opponents to realize it is not wise to take her lightly.
“… She plays like she’s 6-foot-2,” Kuk said. “I sure wouldn’t want to defend against her.”
Mack leads the team with 3.2 kills per game and is the first player junior setter Abby Walker seeks out.
“I can always count on her when we really need a point,” Walker said. “Almost every time when we’re in a crucial spot, I know she can get the kill. I’m always looking for her.”
That was not always the case.
Mack didn’t make the varsity team as a freshman or sophomore. The second time she was relegated to junior varsity status she decided to dedicate more time to the sport instead of pouting.
“I decided then that I was going to try out for a club team. I made that team (Pinellas Heat) and then did some camps. By my junior year I made the team and it was like a total 180.”
Last season, Mack proved a reliable option behind taller hitters like Lee Nielsen, Abbey Bouchard and Logan Miller. Her leaping ability allows her to slam kills and excite a crowd.
“Players like Naomi, who can jump out of the gym the way she does, they don’t come around very often,” Kuk said. “She’s been a work in progress every year.
“She was so tentative as a freshman and sophomore and really didn’t understand offenses that well. Then she improved so much from her sophomore to junior year.”
Mack is not the only volleyball player in her family. Her sister, Khadija Charleston, played volleyball at Dunedin and Gulf Coast Community College. She wanted to be like her sister but didn’t realize how much competition there was at a place like PHU.
“After I saw what it took to be on a team like this I really pushed myself,” Mack said. “It was easy to make the team in middle school, but once I got here I realized it’s much different.”
Mack said she has received a few letters from colleges but is unsure if she wants to play at the next level.
She is more concerned with keeping the Hurricanes alive once the postseason begins, and that means delivering powerful kills.
“That’s what I’m here to do,” Mack said. “I don’t always get the kill, but when I do it’s a great feeling.”
The final round of the Pinellas County Athletic Conference volleyball tournament is Oct. 16. The 16-team field has been broken down to four four-team groups to be played at four sites. Seedings were determined after last week’s pool play.
Where: East Lake
At stake: First through fourth place
Schedule: St. Petersburg vs. East Lake, 6; Palm Harbor University vs. Clearwater, 6; final and consolation games, 7:30
At stake: Fifth through eighth place
Schedule: Seminole vs. Tarpon Springs, 6; Countryside vs. Osceola, 6; final and consolation games, 7:30
At stake: Ninth through 12th place
Schedule: Dunedin vs. Dixie Hollins, 6; Northeast vs. Pinellas Park, 6; final and consolation games, 7:30
Where: Boca Ciega
At stake: 13th through 16th place
Schedule: Lakewood vs. Gibbs, 6; Largo vs. Boca Ciega, 6; final and consolation games, 7:30