Friday, Jul 25, 2014
Central High School

Volleyball

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Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 05:37 PM

They met only once last season, in a match as hyped and heavily attended as any within Hernando County in recent memory.

Nature Coast topped Springstead last October, in front of a raucous crowd, but both teams had plenty to brag about in 2011.

Each team claimed a district championship, the Lady Eagles for the first time ever and the Lady Sharks for the fourth time in five years.

Springstead went on to make its first appearance in a regional semifinal. Nature Coast went to a regional final for the second consecutive season.

But this is 2012, and with a fresh campaign on the horizon, the county's two dominant crews from a year ago are barely recognizable now.

The Lady Sharks return only one member of their regular rotation, and it's not two-time defending Player of the Year Courtney Liddle, now playing sand volleyball at Purdue.

Three other Nature Coast players signed to play in college, outside hitter Courtney Crawford, middle hitter Michelle Doucet and setter Lauren Powell.

Another starter, promising middle hitter Sierra Ruiz, has opted not to come out for the team as a junior. So, too, did opposite hitter Kathy Hoak, a senior this year.

Then there's Springstead, with only one returning starter and the only remaining All-County selection in senior outside hitter Marisa Welch.

Plus the Lady Eagles have their second new head coach in as many years, former Central setter Noemi Rivera.

With so much turnover among those two clubs, that leaves considerable question as to just who will step up and claim local supremacy.

Nature Coast's run of dominance has been impressive, featuring eight straight trips to regionals.

Second-year head coach Emily Gore has her own personal three-year regional streak, going back to when she coached at Central in 2009.

Yet senior Courtney Skinner is her only player who saw significant court time down the stretch last year, when the Lady Sharks went 25-3.

"It's a fresh start," Gore said. "But it's more like an exciting start. We don't know where the season is going to go.

"It'll be really fun to watch the development of this team. In that way it's an exciting year for me because I get to do a lot of coaching because we're so young."

Skinner, entering her fourth year on varsity, spent the previous season as a libero, overshadowed by fellow "Courtneys" Crawford and Liddle.

She showed herself to be a solid server, with 66 aces and a 90.8 serve percentage. She also recorded a team-best 353 digs, inherent to her defensive position.

With the changes in personnel, Skinner will move back to outside hitter. She played that position as a sophomore, totaling 103 kills.

"She doesn't need to do anything special, just be herself," Gore said. "The other girls have to do their jobs.

"She's a fantastic volleyball player. It's easy to look past that. She's done some really good things for Nature Coast the past three seasons. I think she's capable of playing at the next level.

"If she had as much height as Courtney Crawford and Courtney Liddle, she's had the athleticism all along. Unfortunately she's working with a 5-foot-2 body."

The performance of the rest of roster, though, remains to be seen.

"Our goal is to be district champions again this season," Gore said. "We know we're young and have a lot of progress we need to make. But at Nature Coast, the standards are high. We'll do everything we can do to accomplish that goal."

Similar to Skinner with the Lady Sharks, Welch will have to step up for the Lady Eagles. She posted 155 kills and 120 digs in a breakout junior season.

Rivera believes both Welch and another returning varsity member, junior setter Bryanna Leonard, will be the team leaders.

"I'm really pleased with how we're looking," Rivera said. "We're playing together well. We just have to find the chemistry, find our groove and we'll be good. I'm excited."

Though many of her players sat behind the likes of Megan Morrison, Allyson Schillinger and Zoe Mannino, Rivera said they gained from the experience of being around that group.

Rivera, a first-time prep coach, will also have to learn on the job while trying to keep Springstead from falling back into its previous doldrums.

The Lady Eagles have posted four consecutive seasons at or above .500, including a school-best mark of 22-6 a year ago.

Prior to that stretch, their last winning record came in 1993.

But the new mentor, the 2005 Player of the Year as a senior with the Lady Bears, remains confident the program won't suffer.

"Trust in each other and we have to stay hungry, and want every point and fight for every point," Rivera said. "Right now, it comes in spurts. Soon we'll be good to go.

"I think we should do really well. If we do what we're supposed to, I don't see why we can't do it again."

The one team in the county not starting from scratch is Hernando.

The Lady Leopards did lose their two All-County reps, setter Kristen Jones and outside hitter Remi Manuel, to graduation.

However, Hernando has six seniors on its roster. Five of them, Nicole Cicero, Layci Martin, Ebone' Plummer, Kendall Raney and Ashley Sims, played on last year's 14-11 squad.

"This is our fourth year," Hernando head coach Patti Martin said. "Our players are right where we want them to be. It's an excellent, scrappy, talkative team. They work really well together. They play really hard."

Coach Martin figures the Lady Leopards can take opponents by surprise, because their leaping ability belies the general small stature of this group.

Nature Coast has consistently served a roadblock for Hernando. Two years ago, the Lady Leopards lost their district final and regional semifinal to the Lady Sharks.

Last season, it was the Lady Sharks who knocked out Hernando in the Class 5A, District 7 semis.

"We want to go to regionals," Coach Martin said. "We want to go to the Sweet 16 like the year before last. We definitely think that's an attainable goal.

"We came in second in the district last year based on our record, and the only team that literally beat us was Nature Coast. And they won't beat us this year."

Central (6-17 in 2011) has just hired a new coach, former Lady Bear and Lady Eagle Alyson Wagoner.

The 2008 Springstead graduate is currently a long-term sub at Central while working toward her degree in elementary education at St. Petersburg College.

Much like Rivera, she is a young former player making her first foray into prep coaching. At 22 years old, she said she can relate to her players.

"I haven't been out too much longer from high school, so I know how to handle situations to a point," Wagoner said. "The downfall is I'm kind of nervous being one of the younger coaches in the county."

The hope for the Lady Bears is improvement after two straight losing seasons, behind returnees such as Samantha Bishop, Hunter Murchio, Whitney Roberts and Julia Waugh.

"I think it'll be a good season," Wagoner said. "They know what they need to do, who they need to communicate with. I definitely think other schools should watch out for Central this year.

"Hopefully we will not have as many losses (as last year). But we just want to have heart in the game. Wins and losses we're not very focused on this year."

Weeki Wachee enters its second varsity season. The Lady Hornets went 4-15 last year.

For the first time the team will feature returning seniors, including libero Danielle Burke, setter Allison Leip and outside hitter Halie Werkmeister.

"We're hoping to do a lot better than last year," Weeki Wachee head coach Kelly Werkmeister said.

"I feel we're better than what we were last year. We're a more unified family. We're stronger hitters, stronger passers. It's a more organized group on the court."

Hernando Christian Academy (10-15 in 2011) remains an inexperienced club, looking to lean on returnees Kady Curry, Emily Hethorn and Nikki Klukowski.

"I have one senior coming out this year who has never played volleyball before," HCA head coach Stacy Hethorn said. "We will be young and learning and training.

"We lost a lot of experienced players last year, so we'll have to regain that experience. I think this year will be a learning year. But the players I have are strong players. They've just got to learn their roles."


cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com (352) 544-5288

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