By Ken Jackson
Harmony and Osceola have been at the top of the county’s public school volleyball pyramid for the past several seasons. Harmony has claimed the last two Orange Belt Championships, after Osceola held the title for three years.
Both squads, who qualified for the regional playoffs, again are prime contenders for the conference title as well as their respective district championships.
Osceola battles in District 9A-7 with Gateway, George Jenkins, Haines City and Ridge.
In its inaugural season, Tohopekaliga joins a crowded District 8A-6 with Celebration, Harmony, Liberty, St. Cloud, defending champion Hagerty, Melbourne and Viera.
City of Life remains in District 2A-5 with a group from Winter Park to Lakeland. New Dimensions has withdrawn from its 3A district and will compete as an independent this season.
Heritage Christian will make a go for an unprecedented fifth straight Florida Christian Conference title.
The Kowgirls saw their typical success under Coach Carrie Palmi. They were 21-7, defeated Jenkins in the 9A-7 championship, but fell in the playoffs to Port St. Lucie West Centennial in five sets.
OHS is built around three three-year varsity players — juniors Janleen DeJesus (setter/outside hitter), Allison Palmi (outside hitter) and Malina Spencer (middle blocker).
Contributors include senior setter Crystal Montoyo, senior Jelissa Soto and junior Dailimar Melendez (libero/defensive specialist), versatile front-row senior Martiza Molina and sophomore Isabella Pancake, freshman hitter Yarelis Lopez and freshman setter and hitter Nadeshly Mojica.
“We aren’t a huge team in physical size, but we have athletic and skilled players and the team as a whole is fundamentally sound, and has very good ball control,” Coach Palmi said. “As always, our focus is on districts. Having a competitive schedule and strong competition within the conference and district, we hope to be well-prepared come playoff time.”
The season is off to a fast start — the Kowgirls defeated Boone and the hosts in the Lake Mary Pre-Season classic, then opened the regular season Tuesday with a three-set win over formidable Celebration.
The Longhorns won the OBC on the strength of an epic match against Osceola — Harmony won the five sets by a combined two points. The team lost in the district finals and regional semifinals to Hagerty, but beat East Ridge in the regional quarterfinals.
But to repeat that success the Longhorns will have to overcome the loss of two-time county Player of the Year Haylie Clark to graduation, and their coach and her mom, Jeannie Clark, to retirement from coaching.
Travis Foster, the Longhorns’ boys coach and a longtime assistant to Clark takes over, knowing that he has to assemble a team designed to hang with the area’s top talent in order to exceed lofty expectations.
“We were 24-5 and lost three times to Hagerty and to Trinity Prep and Winter Park in tournaments,” Foster said. “But we return eight seniors and two sophomores who played last year and know that our pillars are hunger, character and talent.”
He said he knows a priority early in the season is to replace the kills Clark put down last year. But among the returners are senior hitter Brittany Landrum, back from an injury, and sophomore Autumn Rogers, and middle blocker Nayelis Alvarado. Bryn Hudson is back at setter.
The veteran crew includes Jalen O’Boyle, Gianna Rampolla, Yuleidy Torres and Alejandra Mella. Newcomers include sophomore left-side hitter Kaz Charlton and freshmen Ainsley Heyward and Caroline Munns.
The sooner they mesh together, the better, Foster said during a county pre-season jamboree at St. Cloud last week.
“We’re still 0-0, so we have plenty to accomplish,” he said.
The Lady Bulldogs, under Coach Ettie Singleton, will try to gain a postseason berth while fielding just one senior, outside hitter Samantha Singleton.
But there’s plenty of returning talent, including setters Kaylee Tutor and Jazmin Santiago, junior middle blocker Abbie Tutor and sophomore libero Brooke Singleton.
They’ll mix with newcomers like junior defensive specialists Michelle Rivera and Jocelyn Velez, sophomore hitter Aniesha Neff, junior Haudie Whitson and imposing middle blocker Eno Inyang, fresh off a steller freshman season on the Bulldogs’ basketball team.
Singleton’s team took down Harmony in the preseason jamboree.
“We were good, we weren’t great, we made some great plays … and there was some stuff in between them we have to clean up pretty quick,” she said of last week. “We host our district tournament, so the goal is to get to the finals and play in front of our fans. To do that, we’re going to have to play great. Physically we’re ready. Mentally, we have to get over the block of playing and beating teams that we haven’t had success against in the past.”
Coach Eric Capestany heads up the first Tigers’ team to use the schools’ new gymnasium; the first on-campus event was a loss to Gateway Tuesday.
Most of his lineup is very young, freshmen and sophomores including hitter and co-captain Jeila Fullerton, who played at St. Cloud last year. Thamely Santos is a middle blocker and another co-captain, and freshman Arianna Warner is the setter.
The rest of the lineup includes libero Yaceliz Aviles, middle Josibeth Capellan, setter Vaiden Capestany, defensive specialist Gavriella Fernandez, hitters Paige Patterson, Sophia Rahali, Marlyn Vazquez and Teiyana Wiltz and setter Nadia Santiago.
“While we are in a difficult district, I believe we have a team that can compete,” Coach Capestany said. “Part of being a new team, is we still need time to gel. Once we have that trust in one another and understand our roles, we can be that team that can make a run in the playoffs.”
The Storm, coached by veteran Pedro Davila, opened the season with a 3-0 win over Ridge Community. The team is led by freshmen outside hitters Paola Fregonezi and Evaisabel Davila-Morales amd right-junior Sabrina Binet. Senior Nicole Temple and sophomore Jada Tarnouski play the middle, and junior transfer Cameron Junk is the setter.
The rest of the roster includes Daniela Torres, Isabella Vega, Linda Vega, Nayelis Rivera, and Yelika Hernandez Medina.
The Eagles are in a difficult District 6A-13 with multiple state champion Bishop Moore.
Coach Aubrey Lowe welcomes back senior libero Karla Almenas along with standout senior middle blocker Raven Packer, junior right side Akemah Isaac and junior setter Kassemanne Knechtel, who came in from Colorado.
“We have quite a few new players, but it’s a heavy senior team,” Lowe said. “All in all I am very excited about this season and what this team has to bring forth. We do have an extremely competitive district but we are taking it game by game.
The Panthers, coached by Heather Lizardi, won their season opener Tuesday against Tohopekaliga, and hope to make some noise in District 9A-7.
The team consists of Alana Torres Olivera, Alondra Colon, Claudia Irizarry Salamo, Genesis Rodriguez, Giovanna Capobianco, Kamila Rivera Torres, Kyara Rodriguez, Maia Cartagena, Naigels Munoz, Nicole Maldonado Persaud, Sierra Alexander and Zia Cartogena.
The battle for a fifth FCC title is an uphill one after the graduation or transfer of several seniors, including all-state player Brooke Beaver, but Coach Jim Estrella said this team can still make the conference finals if the right amount of improvement happens before the playoffs.
“We’ll be all right if we work hard,” he said.
The team still has five seniors, and four start or play a lot: middle blocker Tatyana Lyons, outside hitter Mariacamila Espejo-Garcia and setters Andrea Teran and Kayli Hodges.
City of Life
Former St. Cloud player Lynnsey Glunt coaches the Warriors. The team includes blocker Kianie Cummings and setter Josie DePool from the team’s state championship basketball team last year, seniors Alondra Fuentes, Katia Vega, Sarah Barnhart and Veronica Rodriguez, junior McKayla Young, Jyreh Ortiz and Emma Lytle and seventh-grader Victoria Fuentes.