As a whole, the 2012 season could only be viewed as a down year for Hernando County volleyball.
For the first time since 1998, no local squad managed to advance to regionals, only a year after Nature Coast went to its third straight Elite Eight and Springstead made it to the Sweet 16.
So to varying degrees, all six of the county's teams are aiming to take significant steps forward in 2013.
Springstead (10-9 in 2012), the defending county champion, appears in the best shape in terms of returning players.
Noemi Rivera enters her second year at the helm with an All-County setter, senior Bryanna Leonard, in tow. Leonard produced 321 assists in her first year as a starter.
Fellow seniors Mckenna Krause and Brittney Riddle on the outside, and libero Ashley Cafiero plus junior outside Paige Krause are all expected to make key contributions.
Rivera also spoke highly of sophomore outside hitter Celeste Veenstra, who played JV last year, and junior middle hitter Cailla Strobel, a transfer from Gulf.
"She's a great player," Rivera said of Strobel. "She gives us another big blocker and a hitter in the middle. So we're excited. She moves Paige to the outside.
"I think we should have a really decent season. It should be really good. We've got a good core from last year and with the new additions, we should do really well."
Admittedly, Rivera doesn't have much information on the Lady Eagles' new district, Class 6A, District 10 featuring St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins, Largo, Mitchell and Seminole-Osceola.
Mitchell and Osceola both reached regionals as district runners-up a year ago, then lost in their first-round matches.
That uncertainty has made it difficult for the coach to predict how the season will go down.
"Our bench isn't extremely deep," Rivera said. "But if our passing is on, I don't see how things shouldn't go our way.
"We definitely want to come up with a winning season. We want to be number one in our county and we want to do the best we can. The girls have high expectations. They want to win districts and have a great season."
Springstead opens the season Monday at Nature Coast, and the Lady Sharks would love to make 2012 a speed bump rather than the start of a continuing trend.
Not only did Nature Coast break its eight-year streak of going to regionals, it tumbled all the way to 4-22.
"I think we're definitely a little more experienced than last year," Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore said. "Every girl on the roster except one has pretty extensive varsity experience. That will definitely help us. We need to get better throughout the season.
"There's not a lot of height. We have to play really smart as a team. We have to make good decisions. We have to rely on serving and communication."
Seniors Zavana Schmit (middle hitter) and Savannah Sievers (libero) figure to lead the way. Schmit had 84 kills and 27 blocks as a junior; Sievers totaled 315 digs and 27 aces.
A new setter, junior Kelly Murphy, and junior middle hitter Talicia Liles will also need to make an impact.
"Every team goes into the season with a goal to be champion," Gore said. "We want to compete for a county championship, a district championship. I think the girls know if we're at our best, we do have the opportunity to compete for that. But we have to improve as the season goes on.
"I think a successful season for this team would be over.500. We're coming off a four-win season. To be able to have an over .500 season, and when the district tournament comes around to be able to say we can compete and possibly win a championship, we're trying to build that confidence."
???Nature Coast has remained in 5A-7, now joined by Central, Hernando and Weeki Wachee, as well as Pasco, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills. Not one of those teams made it out of their respective districts last year.
Both Hernando and Central are breaking in new head coaches, though the Lady Leopards aren't exactly starting over.
Robin Bailey had served as assistant coach under Patti Martin the previous four years. Martin stepped down after last season, pushing Bailey one seat down the bench.
"I'm excited," Bailey said. "The girls have worked really hard. I've been here five years; I've coached them 2-3 years on JV. Patti built up this program. We're looking for more success."
Hernando went 12-10 last season, and was arguably the county's best team by year's end, defeating the other four public school squads to close out the regular season.
But there has been considerable personnel turnover. Sophomore libero Brianna Brady and senior outside hitters Tana McDaniel and Elisha Pager are now the leaders.
Bailey's JV team went 16-0 in 2012, and several of those girls have moved up, including junior setter Rebecca Laing. Freshman middle hitter Ali Bronson figures to play a prominent role, as well.
"We're looking forward to this district," Bailey said. "We think it's a competitive district all-around.
"You always want a winning season, but we'd like to win the district and beyond. They're going to practice hard. 'Play with passion' is our motto this year. They're conditioned. They're coachable. They listen and they want it."
Recently hired Andrea Kneser has only had a few weeks with the Lady Bears (9-13 in 2012) and knows there is much work ahead.
"This year I just want it to be a rebuilding year, that the girls just really learn the teamwork aspect of the game, and the skills will follow," Kneser said. "They have to be the smartest team I have ever coached.
"They all have unique personalities and make me laugh. This has been the best experience coaching them so far."
Senior middle hitter Samantha Bishop, coming off an All-County season, headlines a group Kneser admits she is teaching the basics of volleyball.
"My expectations are, I see the girls performing well," Kneser said. "I said it doesn't matter if we go 0-for however many games we have. I think when we get to districts the girls are going to be prepared."
Entering its third varsity season, Weeki Wachee is still trying to build up its program. The Lady Hornets have gone 4-15 and 3-21 thus far.
"I'm just looking forward to a better year," Weeki Wachee head coach Kelly Werkmeister said. "This year we have a lot of club players. They have a lot of experience on the court. But it's still a young team together.
"We've just got to believe and have faith. We had a rocky start in the beginning but I think this year we'll start to turn things around."
Werkmeister expects to have a sound defensive squad, led by junior middle hitter Chreslyn Serama, senior middle hitter Shannan Evers, junior setter Alyssa Cupeles and freshman outside hitter Miranda Werkmeister.
"A .500 season would be nice, but it all depends on the teamwork," Coach Werkmeister said. "As long as the girls give 110 percent, that's where it is."
Hernando Christian Academy had a respectable 13-12 mark last year, and will hope to make headway in the reformed 2A-8 with Bayshore Christian, St. Petersburg-Canterbury, Citrus Park Christian, St. Petersburg-Keswick Christian and Clearwater-Lakeside Christian. Bayshore Christian and Canterbury were district runners-up in 2012.
All-County middle hitter Nikki Klukowski returns as a senior, having tallied 93 kills, 50 aces, 47 digs and 39 blocks for the Lady Lions last season.
Junior Emily Hethorn helps fortify the middle, and senior Kady Curry will be the primary setter.
"We're hoping to do pretty good. Realistically we're third or fourth in the district," HCA head coach Stacy Hethorn said. "We'd like to be over .500 and we'd like our see our team improve on the outside."