KISSIMMEE -- The only Florida team to beat St. Thomas Aquinas this year had been Venice, early in the season.
On Wednesday night, Venice did it again, knocking off Aquinas, 25-15, 25-21, 25-16, in the Class 7A state final inside Silver Spurs Arena.
After the match, Venice coach Brian Wheatley jumped atop the press table, exuberantly saluting his team’s fans. Venice (27-3), after all, had just avenged its 2004 state finals loss to Aquinas.
Venice’s joy meant pain for Aquinas (23-4), which fell one victory short of winning its third state title.
“I’m really upset,” Aquinas’ Allison Belanger said. “I wanted the ring.”
Sadder still for the Raiders was the fact that five of their seven regulars played their final high school match on Wednesday: Belanger, Bridgette Villano, Brooke Lyons, Ana Pedraza and Jennifer Truzzolino.
That core group took Aquinas to the state’s Final Four in each of the past two seasons.
“They had a great run, and we had a great season,” Aquinas coach Lisa Zielinski said. “I’m just disappointed we didn’t play better. We couldn’t put balls away, and our defense really struggled on first-ball contact. We were backpedaling.”
Brooke Lyons said Venice’s quick offense had a lot to do with Aquinas’ struggles to dig balls.
“They put balls up at a faster pace than we could defend it,” she said.
Aquinas had its chances, though, leading 13-11 in the first set before Venice went on an imposing 14-2 run. In the second set, Aquinas led 18-17 before Venice closed on an 8-2 roll.
The Raiders could not climb out of that hole, especially when Venice sported a .452 hitting percentage to Aquinas’ .083 in the final set.
Brooke Lyons led Aquinas with 10 kills and a .438 hitting percentage, the only Raiders player to hit over .240 for the match.
Venice’s Wheatley said the key was keeping Aquinas out of its offensive system.
“If we let them get the ball to their setter like they wanted, we were going to lose,” Wheatley said. “But we played our best match of the year. I didn’t even call one timeout.
“These are the two best teams in the state. But the way we played, there is not a team in Florida that could have beaten us.”
Venice, which started a freshman, two sophomores and a junior Wednesday night, won the 7A title despite serving the last of its two-year FHSAA sanction. After losing in the 2009 state final, Venice players apparently threw their second-place medals into Tampa Bay, where they were later found by fishermen.
As a penalty, the FHSAA forced Venice to play every playoff match on the road for the past two years and also banned Wheatley from the postseason last season.
The Raiders, by all accounts, handled Wednesday’s loss better than Venice did in 2009. They will attempt to reload next season, building around their standout setter, junior Mackenzie Zielinski, and their top hitter, sophomore Nikki Lyons. A key reserve, sophomore Kimeko Bennett also returns and is expected to emerge.
“I’m confident in what we have coming back,” Lisa Zielinski said. “We have a lot of talent in the program.”