Palmer Trinity’s Paulina Prieto, considered by a rival coach to be the best volleyball talent to come out of Miami in the past decade, is gone and now playing for national power Penn State.
Westminster Christian, the team that knocked off Palmer and Prieto in last year’s Class 3A regional semifinals, went on to the state’s Final Four for the first time in 24 years.
This year, Westminster has emerged as the clear favorite to reign as the top team in Miami and could potentially play for what would be its first state title.
“Having to compete against a player like Paulina made us better,” Westminster coach Julie Doan said. “We haven’t seen a player like her in 10 years. It will be cool for our kids to see her on TV and maybe in the Olympics one day knowing that we knocked her out of the playoffs.”
Westminster’s own playoff run ended last year with a loss to Fort Myers’ Evangelical Christian, a team the Warriors had beaten twice earlier in the season. Westminster won the first set before losing the next three.
This year, the Warriors return their top three players, all of whom made first-team All-Dade last season: juniors Silvia Hernandez, Susie Forbes and Jenny Ceballos.
Leading the way is Hernandez, a 5-10 outside hitter who averaged 20 kills and 15 digs last season. She was the 4A-2A Player of the Year in Miami.
“Skill-wise, Sylvia is just as good as Paulina – she’s just not 6-foot-2,” Doan said. “Sylvia is physically mature – she looks like she is 22 (years old), and she can touch 10 feet consistently.”
Forbes, who is 5-6, averaged 20 digs last season. Doan considers her the best libero in the city and one of the best in the country.
Ceballos, who is 5-10, averaged 15 kills last season. And 5-5 junior Kelsey Taylor, who made second-team All-Dade last season, also returns.
Senior leadership will come from 5-8 setter Michelle Melendez and 5-3 defensive specialist Vicki Verdeja.
Sammy Ceballos, a 5-10 sophomore and Jenny’s sister, is a young player to watch. Courtney Clausell, a 6-1 sophomore, is a terrific athlete with vast potential. And a pair of juniors - 5-7 Kat Salgado and 5-10 Valentina Battistoni – are also in the mix.
It’s a talented core, which was proven this summer when Hernandez and several of her Westminster teammates finished fifth in the 16-and-under Junior National club championships at Columbus, Ohio.
But the teams standing in the way of the Warriors and a state title are also formidable. That is especially true of Orlando’s First Academy, which has won four straight state championships.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Hernandez said. “But that just makes us want to work even harder.”
Considering that Hernandez already trains nearly three hours a day – running in the sand, lifting weights and improving her volleyball skills – it’s hard to imagine her working any harder.
Forbes said the entire team looks up to Hernandez and has adopted her fierce competitive spirit. In fact, the playoff loss to end last season still upsets the Warriors.
“We had been winning a lot and kind of expecting to go further,” Forbes said. “Now we have that humility of losing. Now we can have more of a fire to go further.”