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Even with national spotlight, Berkeley Prep won’t look past state foes

The volleyball team served notice early in the season that it is a powerhouse again. But Class 3A is certainly stacked.
Berkeley Prep senior outside hitter, Ava Swain, a University of North Carolina commit, fires down a kill during practice. This season Swain has helped lead the Bucs to a 22-2 record and a No. 5 national ranking by MaxPreps.
Berkeley Prep senior outside hitter, Ava Swain, a University of North Carolina commit, fires down a kill during practice. This season Swain has helped lead the Bucs to a 22-2 record and a No. 5 national ranking by MaxPreps. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 14
Updated Oct. 15

TAMPA — Before Berkeley Prep’s volleyball team stepped on the floor Sept. 3 at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Orlando, the Bucs were flying way under the national radar.

Pretty much everyone thought Berkeley would get easily handled that day by nationally-ranked Hamilton High, an Arizona team that featured one of the nation’s top collegiate prospects, 6-foot-2 Jordan Middleton (committed to Southern California) along with several other major college recruits.

Even Berkeley was keeping things in perspective.

“We were looking at that match as a great opportunity for us to get better by playing a great team,” said Berkeley Prep 6-foot senior Ava Swain, a North Carolina commit. “We thought, ‘Hey, we’ll just give it our all and have fun and see what happens.’ We were loose.”

Then things started to get interesting.

After falling behind 9-1 in the opening game, the Bucs didn’t blink. They adjusted, stayed cool and steadily chipped away, firing down one confident shot after another.

The Bucs lost that opening set 25-22, but they had everyone’s attention.

“I told everyone, ‘That first game just showed that we can do this. It shows that we belong here,’ " Swain recalled.

Berkeley followed with a 25-23 Game Two win, then, with Hamilton showing some doubt, Berkeley close out the match with a 15-10 victory in the third.

“I think that was shocking to everyone at the tournament and probably to everybody in the whole state,” Swain said. “Winning that match changed the way we saw so many things. It showed what we could do and it gave so much confidence.”

In her second year as Berkeley Prep coach, Justeen Coulson has the Bucs back in the national spotlight.
In her second year as Berkeley Prep coach, Justeen Coulson has the Bucs back in the national spotlight. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Berkeley kept winning and its ranking kept rising.

Now a few days before the Class 3A, District 5 tournament, the Bucs are 22-2, ranked No. 5 in the country by MaxPreps, No. 2 overall in Florida and No. 1 in Class 3A. Berkeley’s only losses were in the first match of the year to nationally-ranked Plant (No. 22) and nationally-ranked Atlanta St. Pius X Catholic (No. 30). The Bucs also came back to defeat Plant (ranked No. 5 overall in Florida) twice during the regular season.

All that aside, second-year Berkeley coach Justeen Coulson says, “We aren’t going to let up. We can’t afford to. There are so many good teams in Class 3A, and in our district (including Tampa Prep, No. 5 in 3A, and Bishop McLaughlin, No. 9).”

Tampa Prep (19-5), in fact, gave the Bucs just about all they could handle in a regular-season match before losing 28-26, 26-24, 26-24.

Berkeley played that contest with starting sophomore hitter Lulu Phegley, who a few weeks later was lost for the season with a torn ACL sustained during the third match against Plant.

As has been their custom this season, the Bucs adjusted nicely with sophomore Emery Fertic stepping up as a hitter while other Bucs — including outside hitters Bailey Higgins (sophomore transfer from California) and Hannah Hankerson (freshman), senior setters Olivia Rabinowitz and Jackeline Nerro, senior middle blocker Bre McDonough and defensive specialists Jackie Hochberg (senior) and Kiara Orbegoso (junior) — tweaked their positions and roles.

“We realize we don’t have 30 players on our team (10 active Bucs listed on current roster),” Swain said. “So each girl knows they have to push the girl next to them, and that we have to be versatile and play different roles at different times. But I think we’re blessed in that way. We know we can’t just coast. We aren’t complacent. We might be ranked No. 5 in the nation but we feel we have a lot prove and we know we cannot let up now.”

Ultimately, the goal is to win the state title, which would be No. 17 for the Bucs, the last coming in 2017.