In 2013, a budding new rivalry emerged in the county volleyball ranks.
Hernando and Weeki Wachee squared off four times, the last coming in the Class 5A, District 7 championship match, won by the Lady Leopards in four games.
Nevertheless, both advanced to the regional quarterfinals, the Lady Hornets becoming the first team in school history to do so in any sport.
With both teams returning several key players, on paper they appear set for another collision course as a new season begins this week.
“We have our goals set,” Hernando head coach Robin Bailey said. “We felt like we should have won our regional game last year. We want to push it, especially these seniors. We’re hoping for a repeat.”
The Lady Leopards (17-6 in 2013) boast seven seniors on their roster, including All-County libero Brianna Brady, Sierra Cannon, Ryleigh D’Ambrosio, Danielle Harvey, Kaitlyn Jones, Rebecca Laing and Sequoia Sellers.
That list doesn’t include perhaps the county’s finest returning player, sophomore middle hitter Ali Bronson.
She burst onto the scene as a freshman, becoming Hernando’s go-to hitter at the net while earning All-County honors, and was in strong consideration for Player of the Year.
Bronson has fully recovered from the foot injury that sidelined her most of basketball season, Bailey said.
“She’s stepping it up,” Bailey said. “It’s not just that she’s settling for hitting the ball over the net. She knows where she wants to put it and executes it.”
The graduation of Tana McDaniel, an All-County middle hitter and vocal team captain, certainly leaves a void, but these Lady Leopards remain battle-tested.
“I think we have more experience,” Bailey said. “Tana was a contributor and a motivator. But most of the girls I have played last year.”
Weeki Wachee (16-11 in 2013) has five seniors including All-County setter Alyssa Cupeles, who had 658 assists as a junior.
Other seniors include Alexis McDowell, Montanna Messina, Samantha Page and Anastasia Papoi.
Sophomore outside hitter Miranda Werkmeister posted 235 kills and 332 digs as a freshman to garner an All-County nod, as did junior libero Zoe Murchio with 318 digs.
Last year’s Player of the Year, middle hitter Chreslyn Serama, would have returned for her senior year, but moved to Tennessee immediately after last season.
Thus, the Lady Hornets have to find a way to replace a player who recorded 246 kills in a breakout campaign.
“I’ve got some veterans and I’ve got some rookies. We’re trying to bring them together and keep the team competitive,” Weeki Wachee head coach Kelly Werkmeister said. “You’re not really going to replace Chreslyn, but we’ve got a couple of girls.”
One of those is sophomore outside hitter Nicole Diaz, a transfer from Puerto Rico, as well as Messina and sophomore middle hitter Taylor Miller.
After going 7-36 their first two seasons, the Lady Hornets certainly don’t want to slide backward.
“We’re going to be a competitive team,” Coach Werkmeister said. “To say what we’re going to go for as a record, I can’t say what that’s going to be. We hope it’ll be a good year. But these girls are united.”
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Springstead (13-10 in 2013) must replace graduated two-time All-County setter Bryanna Leonard while maneuvering through the mostly Pinellas County-based 6A-10.
Third-year head coach Noemi Rivera does have several returnees, seniors Leah Doskoez, Paige Krause, Kristin Sanchez, Cailla Strobel, Jessica Wendelstedt and junior Celeste Veenstra.
“We obviously want to have a winning season,” Rivera said. “We want to be number one in the county and have a good fight at districts. Our passing game has improved and we’re strong in the front row. I’m really looking forward to the season.”
Meanwhile, Nature Coast and Central, both in 5A-7, are breaking in new head coaches.
Ben Crofchick replaces Emily Gore on the Lady Sharks’ bench and has a realistic view on a team that went 4-22 and 6-19 the past two years. That followed a run of five consecutive 20-win seasons, four district titles in five years and two straight trips to the Elite Eight.
“This is a tough area. Hernando County has got some great volleyball,” Crofchick said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. I just want to win more games than last year.”
With four seniors in Bronte Cameron, Courtney David, Talicia Liles and Kelly Murphy, along with junior libero Brittney Rodriguez, Crofchick believes the team’s strength will lie in a defense exhibiting “a relentless-pursuit attitude.”
“We call this a rebuilding season so we can start reloading for next year,” Crofchick said. “We’re in a season where every win is important, but I’m more concerned with how we play.”
The situation at Central is murkier. As of this weekend, the Lady Bears are without a head coach, coming off a 6-17 season.
Athletic director Al Sorrentino, overseeing the team for the time being, said several potential hires fell through over the summer, though one is lined up and just awaiting official approval from the school district.
Regardless, Sorrentino said, the team will take the court for its season opener Tuesday at Weeki Wachee. Seniors Taylor Gray, Christina Lewis and Desiree McGee are among the returnees.
“The girls are still working hard. I think we have a pretty good, talented group on the varsity level,” Sorrentino said. “They know coaches are coming and should be here sometime next week. It really hasn’t discouraged them from doing what we need to do.
“In some ways, you don’t want to not have a coach, but it’s a positive thing that some of the seniors have had to take on a bit more leadership.”
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Hernando Christian Academy went 11-14 a year ago and returns just one player, senior middle hitter Emily Hethorn.
Head coach Stacy Hethorn spoke highly of three new players, sophomores Kendall Rossiter and Lauren Zappone, as well as eighth-grader Korrie Rossiter.
The Lady Lions have to deal with a rugged 2A-8 that includes powerhouses St. Petersburg-Keswick Christian and Tampa-Bayshore Christian.
“I’d like to see us go at least .500 this year,” said Coach Hethorn, adding that as far as cracking the top two in the district, “We might start the season slow, but I think at the end we’ll be a strong, competitive enough team that we could do it.”