ST. PETERSBURG — By focusing on its game, St. Petersburg managed to keep Sunlake off balance.
Against an unfamiliar opponent in Wednesday night’s Class 6A region volleyball tourney opener, the host Green Devils utilized finesse and force to run away to a convincing 25-12, 25-15, 25-12 victory.
“When we don’t know a team, we focus on cleaning up our side of the net,” St. Petersburg coach Joseph Abad said. “Serving and receiving serve is really important, and if we pass well, it opens things up for every hitter on the floor. Anybody we have out there can put the ball away.”
That was beyond true on Wednesday. With junior Nicole Robison (32 assists, putting her 15 shy of 700 for the season) deftly working the ball to classmates Madelyn Davis (nine kills and three blocks) and Kate Youmans (eight kills) as well as freshman Jordan Bunce (eight kills), the third-seeded Green Devils (25-3) kept No. 6 Sunlake back on its heels throughout the match.
“It was one of the things we worked on in practice, trying to turn the ball and find open spots,” Davis said. “We'd take a quick scan to see what's open, see if they have two blocks up, one block, three … just seeing where we can go.”
Add effective team-wide serving and the Seahawks (18-7) were literally forced to defend the entire width and depth of the court, keeping setter Maya Houston (15 assists) on the move, forcing tougher passes and disrupting their attack. Sunlake could only run off seven multiple-point streaks, the longest a four-point stretch including a Sofia McGuire ace that gave the visitors their largest lead of the night, 6-3 in the second set.
On the other side, St. Petersburg pulled together soul-crushing runs in each set.
Powered by three Davis kills, Youmans had a six-point service run in the first set to get the Green Devils an early 10-point advantage. The hosts shook off Sunlake’s second-set start via two aces and a 7-0 run on Davis’ serve, then extended the lead on Jessica Halvorsen’s set-closing serving streak.
“Madelyn has really stepped up as a leader,” Abad said. “She's worked on her timing as a blocker and is doing an excellent job helping us execute as a team.”
Saving the best for last, junior and Italian exchange student Alice Vecchiatti struck for four aces as the Green Devils forced four Seahawks errors and stretched a three-point lead to 20-6 to lock down the sweep.
“I was just trying to serve in the empty spots,” said Vecchiatti, who played the equivalent of club ball prior to coming to the United States. “The game is a little different (here) but I do my best to adapt myself to the way they play.”
“We were so excited to meet her and make her feel as welcome as possible,” Davis said. “We tried to catch her up as quickly as we could.”
“Alice really teaches us how to hustle,” Abad said. “She's always working, always getting low for returns … as a coach, you have to appreciate her effort and her energy.”
For the third straight season, St. Petersburg advances to the region semifinals. After seeing its season end in Class 8A twice against Palm Harbor University, this year the Green Devils face a two-plus hour road trip and a Tuesday meeting with second seed Fort Myers — a 3-0 winner over East Lake.
“We come into every game knowing it could be our last, focusing as hard as we can and motivating each other as much as possible,” Davis said. “We focus on what’s going on on our side of the court, not anything on the outside, not anything on their side, just focusing on us playing together.”