Taking on a reigning state champion in a noisy and hostile gym can sometimes spell the end of a season for a team.But the St. Thomas Aquinas girls’ volleyball team never blinked Saturday afternoon.
The Raiders, themselves the defending Class 7A state champion, marched into a packed Venice gym and promptly dispatched the Indians in straight sets (27-25, 25-18, 25-23) to win a Class 7A state semifinal.
The victory puts nationally-ranked Aquinas (29-2) into its second straight state championship game. The Raiders will take on Tampa Plant Saturday at 4:35 at UCF. Venice, which won the 2014 Class 6A title, ends its season 22-9.
“We talked about it but you can never really replicate it,” said Aquinas head coach Lisa Zielinski when asked about preparing her team to deal with the hostile atmosphere.
“You just have to be in it and deal with it and this was as loud and tough an atmosphere as any team will play in. I’m proud of the girls for handling it the way they did.”
Everyone agreed when it was over that a tension-packed first set that saw the teams trade leads multiple times might have been the key moment of the match.
Venice actually had a set point up 24-23 when a kill shot over the net missed the line by inches tying it at 24. The Raiders went on to win it 27-25.
“That was huge moment,” said Zielinski, now in her 28th year and who earlier this week was inducted in the Broward County Sports Hall of Fame.
“It was such a back and forth battle and the first set can be such a tone-setter for the match and really provide the team that wins it with momentum and the girls did a great job of finding a way to come out on top.”
Sure enough, Venice had trouble regrouping in the second set as the Raiders jumped out in front early and cruised to an easy 25-18 win.
“It was a lot of fun out here today and the big crowd really actually got us going,” said junior outside hitter Brook Bauer, a Pepperdine commit who finished with 13 kills and 11 digs to lead the way for her team.
“Venice is a tough team, really scrappy and it was just a matter of staying focused and keeping our poise. Winning that first set was huge. A big part of volleyball isn’t just physical, it’s mental and you have to stay mentally tough in situations like that and you could tell they struggled in that second set after we pulled the first set out.”
Allison Marble (13 kills, nine digs, 10 service points), Emma Dixon (10 kills, nine blocks) and Kaylie McHugh (25 digs) also came up big for the Raiders.
Said Zielinski. “I don’t know if everybody realizes how hard it is to get to state, let alone a state final and win it. I’ve been fortunate to have done it three times and it would certainly be great to get that fourth one next week which would mean back-to-back titles. What an honor that would be.”
MORE STATE VOLLEYBALL
▪ Class 8A semifinal – Jupiter d. Ferguson 17-25, 25-17, 19-25, 25-18, 15-12: The Falcons (28-3) came up a handful of points short of becoming the first Miami-Dade County team to reach a state final since Braddock in 2002.
Michelle Cuervo led Ferguson, which made its second appearance in the state semifinals in the past three seasons, with 14 kills and 14 digs. Alexandra Gonzalez had 11 kills and 14 digs and Natalie Hoyos had six kills and nine assists
“We played aggressive, but we made too many errors down the stretch,” Ferguson coach Greg Shanower said. “We’ll miss our seniors, but we return a solid core and they’ll learn from this.”
The match was played at Jupiter since all state semifinals were played at host sites this season. The FHSAA switched the format before this season, which had been hosting the final two rounds at a designated neutral site.
The Falcons didn’t let the road environment at Jupiter affect them as they stormed to the first set lead. But unforced errors didn’t allow Ferguson to sustain enough momentum to put together back-to-back sets and truly take control of the match.
“It hurts today obviously, but I think when the girls take a second and reflect on what they did this year, they’ll realize they accomplished a lot this season,” Shanower said.
ANDRE C. FERNANDEZ
▪ Class 4A semifinal -- Cardinal Gibbons d. Tampa Berkeley 28-26, 19-25, 25-20, 12-25, 15-13: Two of Florida’s most decorated volleyball teams met Saturday with a trip to the state championship match on the line. It lived up to the hype.
Cardinal Gibbons, which has won a state-record 19 state championships, goes for No. 20 on Saturday after holding off the host Buccaneers in a five-set battle. The Chiefs (24-7) face Ocala Trinity Catholic on Saturday at 9 a.m. at UCF.
This is the Chiefs’ fourth trip to the state final four in eight seasons under coach Kathryn Reeber and second trip to the championship round since they won the 4A crown in 2010.
Of Gibbons’ 19 state titles, 18 came under Hall of Fame coach Louise Crocco.
On Saturday, Gibbons led 14-8 in the fifth and deciding game before Berkeley (tied for second in Florida with 15 volleyball championships) roared back and pulled within a point. Gibbons ended it after winning a final rally with senior setter Sarah Martin putting the ball in play with the Bucs unable to answer.
The victory was especially sweet for the Chiefs who lost to Berkeley in the 2011 state semifinal.
“It was nice to go back there, get another shot at them after they got the better of us [in 2011],’’ Reeber said. “We had a rough fourth game and it was so exciting to see the girls get back into it and show how badly they wanted it. Our momentum carried us.’’
Martin helped led the Gibbons attack with 17 kills, 17 assists and 10 digs while senior middle blocker Daniella Molinari had 19 kills with seven digs. Senior setter Kassie Akouri-Tejedor ended with 31 assists.
Class 3A semifinal – Palmer Trinity d. Fort Myers Evangelical 25-20, 25-23, 25-17: After taking two straight sets from host Evangelical Christian, Palmer Trinity let momentum take hold for its last game.
The Falcons rushed out to a 10-0 lead and never let go, dispatching the Sentinels in three straight sets to qualify for its second state championship appearance since 2008. It was Palmer Trinity's third straight road victory.
“The only thing we told them is to come and play, but if we get here we obviously know how to do something well,” Palmer Trinity coach William Gonzalez said through a translator, assistant coach Daniela Herrera. “They needed to believe it.”
The Falcons (20-7) certainly did, but first they had to overcome a fast start by the Sentinels (25-6) in the first set. Palmer Trinity overcame an 11-5 deficit early before establishing hard hitting and stellar defense at the net late as it went on to score four of the game’s last six points.
Outside hitter Ashley Quero led the team with 18 digs, 13 kills, six blocks and two aces. Setter Juliette Hamilton handed out 53 assists, and middle hitter Grace Hibshman added five blocks.
Palmer Trinity will face Gainesville P.K. Yonge next Friday at UCF for the title.
The Falcons battled shot-for-shot with the Sentinels in the second set before extending out to a four-point lead, 22-18, late in the game. ECS scored three straight points to cut the deficit back to one and then tied the game up at 23-all.
But two straight errors by the Sentinels the ensuing two possessions gave the Falcons the game and a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“We’re a team that usually has a bad start, but this time we really wanted it,” Quero said. “We made sure that we were going to win and nothing was going to stop us.”
The Falcons drove out to a 10-0 lead in the third set and never let the Sentinels closer than six points the rest of the way to win the final game 25-17.
“It’s just so crazy that we’re here,” Hamilton said. “We’ve worked so hard. I’m just so proud of everyone.”
▪ Coral Gables 27, Southwest 14: Amir Rasul ran for 125 yards and two touchdowns while Johnny Ford picked up 124 yards and a touchdown to lead the Cavaliers (9-0) at Tropical Park.
“We always say we are going to put the team on our back and tonight we did,” Rasul said.
“The offensive line, wide receivers and quarterback did a great job of reading the plays. Our offensive line did a great job in the first half and the second half of pushing downfield.”
Gables opened the game with scores from Voshon Waiters and Rasul to lead 14-0 before the Eagles (7-3) answered before halftime. Ford and Rasul added scores in the third quarter to open things up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had an undefeated season,” Rasul said. “This year is really special.”
The Cavaliers face Hialeah at 7 p.m. Thursday at Tropical Park in a Region 4-8A quarterfinal. The Eagles face South Dade Friday at Harris Field.
James Barnes rushed for 122 yards on 19 carries in the loss.
▪ Sunset 21, Braddock 14: The Knights needed a fourth-quarter comeback over host Braddock (4-6) to extend their win streak to nine games Saturday afternoon. Sunset (9-1) will ride its hot streak into the playoffs next week as it will host West Broward at Tropical Park and seek the school's first playoff victory.
"Coach told us to remain calm," said Tariq Peters, whose team went 8-0 in District 16-7A. "We came back, fought as hard as we could and we fixed the early mistakes."
Javier Zuniga, Miami-Dade's rushing yardage leader, gained 71 yards on nine carries before leaving the game with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Zuniga was able to put some weight on his ankle as he limped to the trainer's table.
Zuniga finishes the regular season with 1,291 yards and 13 touchdowns on 169 carries. His status for the playoff game is uncertain.
Peters scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 40-yard pass from Michael Cox with 8:57 left in the game and put Sunset up 19-14. On a fake point after kick, Peters tossed a shovel pass to Julian Noriega for a two-point conversion.
Noriega led the Knights with four receptions for 102 yards, two touchdowns, a sack and fumble recovery. Peters finished with four receptions for 68 yards and four carries for 15 yards. Pablo Castellanos led the Bulldogs with three receptions for 46 yards and two touchdowns.
▪ Blanche Ely 18, Dilliard 12: The Tigers (2-8) pulled the upset in the annual South Bowl at Lockhart Stadium as Dillard’s last-gasp attempt to tie the score came up short as a tipped pass fell incomplete in the end zone. Despite Ely’s record, it heads to the playoffs as a district runner-up in a three-team district and will visit Dwyer on Friday.
The Ely defense kept Dillard (6-4) in check with five sacks led by defensive end Trevor Goodrum who retuned an interception for a score.
▪ Miami Springs 26, Dr. Krop 0: Darryel Bethune Jr. rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns to help Miami Springs end its season with a shutout. Both the Hawks (6-4) and Dr. Krop (4-6) came into the game outside the playoff picture.
The Hawks’ first score came on a 20-yard catch by David Bradley Jr. on a pass from DeAndre Miles. Bethune Jr. ran in a five yard touchdown minutes later to put Miami Springs up 13- 0 in the first quarter.
Midway through the third quarter, Bethune Jr. scored on a 30-yard run. The final score came on an 11-run by Keidon Wallace in the fourth quarter.
With 5:30 to play in the fourth quarter, a fight broke out near the Krop side line and nearly escalated to a brawl. Punches were thrown and seven players were ejected, four from Krop and three from Miami Springs. Administrators from both schools decided to not finish the final half of the fourth quarter.
▪ St. Brendan 4, Florida Christian 1: Anthony Ore 2 goals; Luis Espejo goal, assist; Alexander Weber goal. StB 1-1.
▪ Ransom Everglades 1, Westminster Christian 0: Antonio Ferrer shutout.
▪ American Heritage 0, Immokalee 0: Jonathan Gomes second shutout. AH 2-0-1.
▪ St. Thomas Aquinas 8, Naples Gulf Coast 0: Shannon Turner 2 goals; Sydney Scheinberg, Riley Tennant, Autumn Bell, Julia Grosso, Olivia Estevez and Halley Mallion goal each. STA 5-0.
▪ St. Brendan 0, Mater Lakes 0
▪ Region 4-8A quarterfinal at Tropical: Coral Gables vs. Hialeah, 7; Region 4-4A semifinal at Traz: University School vs. Booker T. Washington, 7; GCFC championship: Key West at Archbishop McCarthy, 7
▪ Region 4-8A quarterfinal: Southridge at Belen, 3; Region 4-8A quarterfinal at Harris: Southwest vs. South Dade, 7:30; Region 4-8A quarterfinal at Milander: Columbus vs. American, 7:30; Region 3-8A quarterfinal: Piper at Flanagan, 7:30; Region 3-8A quarterfinal: Plantation at Deerfield Beach, 7:30; Region 4-7A quarterfinal: Royal Palm Beach at St. Thomas Aquinas, 7:30; Region 4-7A quarterfinal: Blanche Ely at Dwyer, 7:30; Region 4-7A quarterfinal at Tropical: West Broward vs. Sunset, 7:30; Region 4-7A quarterfinal: Mater Academy at Nova, 7:30; Region 4-6A quarterfinal: Central at Boyd Anderson, 7:30; Region 4-6A quarterfinal at Traz: Dillard vs. Carol City, 7:30; Region 4-5A quarterfinal: Fort Pierce Westwood at American Heritage, 7:30; Region 4-5A quarterfinal: Hallandale at Riviera Beach Suncoast, 7:30; Region 4-4A semifinal: Gulliver at Belle Glade Glades Central, 7:30; Region 4-3A semifinal: Heritage-Delray at Westminster Christian, 2:30; Region 4-3A semifinal: Chaminade-Madonna at WPB Oxbridge, 7:30; Region 4-2A semifinal: Naples Community at Dade Christian, 7:30
▪ SFC championship at Pompano Beach: Calvary Christian vs. Coral Springs Charter, 7