For St. Thomas Aquinas’ volleyball team, this season’s focus has been earning a second chance at state.
On Saturday afternoon, the Raiders didn’t waste any time punching their ticket back to the state final four in Kissimmee with a 25-16, 25-18, 25-10 victory over host Royal Palm Beach in the Region 4-7A final.
St. Thomas (22-3) clinched its second consecutive trip to state and will begin its attempt to win its first state championship since 2004 on Tuesday when it plays Lakeland George Jenkins at 4 p.m. at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
Aquinas and Sheridan Hills Christian (Class 2A) are Broward County’s representatives at the state final four this season.
Last season, a younger Raiders squad was eliminated in the semifinals. With most of the squad back on a team that began the season ranked among the nation’s top 50, Aquinas is a more confident group.
“A lot of our team returning has helped put us in a better position,” St. Thomas coach Lisa Zielinski said. “Every match is different because you never know, but I think we’re definitely ready and they want that challenge.”
The sharp and timely serving of senior Allison Belanger kept the Raiders attack clicking throughout the match. Belanger finished with six aces as well as 10 kills and 12 digs.
Mackenzie Zielinski delivered 36 assists, two aces and six digs, as she often found Aquinas’ hitters in good spots for kills. Nikki Lyons had 14 kills and seven digs. Ana Pedraza kept up Aquinas’ defense with 20 digs.
“They were very focused from the start, and our practices were meant that way to keep them prepared,” Zielinski said. “We didn’t travel as much this season, so to come here on the road and get it done in three was nice to see.”
The Raiders were only truly challenged in the second game by the host Wildcats (17-11) when they briefly took a 13-12 lead. But Aquinas gradually pulled away behind Belanger’s serving and three strong kills by Lyons.
“We’re really excited because it’s a second chance for us, and I think this time we’re going to follow through,” Belanger said. “We are more prepared mentally for what we are going to face.”
• Region 4-2A final — Sheridan Hills Christian d. Westwood Christian 25-16, 25-13, 10-25, 25-14: The Sharks (14-7) are going back to the state semifinals thanks to a Region 4-2A final victory over the Warriors (19-4) at Westwood Christian.
With Sheridan Hills having lost its momentum in the opponent’s gym after dropping a third set that the Warriors dominated, it seemed like Westwood was poised to come back. However, the Sharks burst out to a 5-1 lead to start the fourth set and never looked back on the way to a 25-14 win.
“I think we got a little too excited,” junior Caitlin McCluskey said. “They have a good team, and we needed to finish it off. I think we were still saving our energy up in that third set and that’s why we were able to come back in the fourth set and play our game.”
Sheridan Hills won the first set on an ace by McCluskey. The Warriors played well at the start of the second set, but in the end the Sharks finished on a 7-2 run to take the set.
McCluskey led Sheridan Hills with 16 kills and 18 digs. Valeria Estrada had 30 assists and Michaela Poitevien had 14 service points. The Warriors were led by Liz Jenkins, who had 21 digs and 14 kills. Leanne Tejada had 28 assists.