TAMPA — Standing on the volleyball court Saturday afternoon, Academy of the Holy Names seniors Mia Zazzero and Olivia Mortellaro said that because of the doubt and restraints caused by the coronavirus they could not possibly be more “appreciative to simply be playing volleyball with their teammates.”
“We missed volleyball so much when we (were in lockdown),” Zazzero said. “We even missed preseason conditioning, which isn’t something you normally miss because it’s so tough. But we even missed doing that.”
Compounding the emotion was the fact the Jaguars knew this year’s team had a chance to do something extra special. They knew, for instance, that they returned almost all of last year’s starters, a group that made it to the Class 4A state semifinals before losing. They also knew they had grown up a lot, as coach Randy Thomas said, “technically, physically, emotionally and mentally.”
Facts that were on full display Saturday during a dominating 25-14, 25-21, 25-13 victory over previously unbeaten Weeki Wachee in a Class 4A region final. A victory that sends the Jags back to the state semifinals next Saturday against Jacksonville Bishop Kenny, which advanced after a five-set victory over Alachua Santa Fe.
This time, however, the feeling is completely different for AHN heading into the big matchup.
“Last year I was really, really nervous before the state semifinal,” AHN sophomore Kinsley Warbritton said. “I mean I was a freshman and a lot of the girls were four years older than me. It was intimidating. It was scary. But this year it isn’t. We have that experience (of playing in a state semifinal).”
Thomas added more perspective: “We started four freshmen last year. That’s a lot of pressure for freshmen to handle.”
Now those freshmen are seasoned sophomores after playing a challenging schedule that led to an 18-8 record with some tough losses: Losses that made them tougher and more prepared for the playoff games like the one on Saturday against Weeki Wachee, which ended its season 17-1.
Mortellaro said the coming week will involve a great deal of intensity, appreciation and COVID-19 protocols, especially after hearing about other teams who had their seasons ended by positive cases.
“To have your senior season ended like that would be so terrible; I can’t even imagine,” said Mortellaro, a libero with a team-high 265 digs. “That’s why we’ve been extra careful with wearing the face masks and washing our hands all the time. We don’t want anything to stop us now. … For me this is it. I’m getting chills thinking about my last game coming up. Four years ago (winning a state title) wasn’t anywhere on my radar. Now it is. And I am so thankful for all of it.”
Part of Academy’s optimism stems not only from last year’s experience, but by the fact their attack is diverse and dynamic with four players — Warbritton, Camille McClendon, Camryn McClendon and Campbell Haime — with more than 120 kills, and three players — the McClendons and Zazzero — with more than 30 blocks.
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“We feel totally comfortable setting a bunch of different players and that causes challenges for the defense,” Thomas said. “I would say we are totally unselfish.”
Mortellaro said, “We are all in this together. We are all in it for each other.”
Region volleyball finals
2A: Naples First Baptist 3, Tampa Bay HEAT 0
3A: Bishop McLaughlin 3, Sarasota Cardinal Mooney 1
4A: Holy Names 3, Weeki Wachee 0
5A: Ocala Vanguard 3, Fivay 0
5A: Robinson 3, Port Charlotte 1
6A: Fort Myers 3, Hillsborough 0
6A: St. Petersburg 3, Ocala Forest 1
7A: Plant 3, Vero Beach 1