For St. Thomas Aquinas standouts Nikki Lyons, Mackenzie Zielinski and Alliyah McBean, volleyball is nearly equal parts pain and pride.
The emotional pain was evident last year when the Raiders, who were one win away from their first state volleyball title since 2004, lost in the Class 7A championship match to Venice.
Physical pain is best exemplified by McBean, a 5-5 junior who is dealing with a broken bone in her left wrist that has not fully healed.
She played with it until the 2012 regional quarterfinals but then missed the rest of the playoffs when the pain became unbearable. And given that McBean is a defensive specialist who is tasked with digging the ferocious spike attempts of opposing hitters, her hands are vital.
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“It’s better this year,” McBean said of the injury. “When I dig a ball, it stings for about five minutes, but it’s not that bad. It’s not going to heal until I stop playing, and I’m not going to stop playing.”
That’s where the pride comes in for McBean and her aforementioned teammates. All three will play volleyball at the next level — Lyons at Pepperdine, Zielinski at Miami of Ohio and McBean at Delaware State.
Lyons made her choice in the spring, and Zielinski and McBean decided within the past two weeks, giving the Raiders (10-1) three Division I recruits.
Zielinski, a 5-7 senior setter and the daughter of Aquinas coach Lisa Zielinski, has a 4.6 grade-point average and is planning to study business and pre-law.
Lyons, a 6-1 junior outside hitter who has a 3.9 GPA, plans on majoring in business and communications. She chose Pepperdine in part because the Waves won the 2012 sand volleyball title and will allow her to play the indoor and outdoor versions of the sport.
McBean, who has a 3.9 GPA, wants to study forensic biology and is interested in working at an FBI lab.
For now, though, the girls are focused on their high school team, which this year added Kara Mason, a 5-10 junior outside hitter who transferred from Boca Raton High, and three freshman standouts: middle blocker Emma Dixon and outsider hitters Brooke Bauer and Allison Marble.
Those freshmen got a sense of the top competition when Aquinas suffered its only loss of the season so far — on the road against Berkeley Prep (Tampa), which has won 15 state titles, including three in a row from 2009 to 2011.
Aquinas owns a win this season against Evangelical Christian (Fort Myers), which lost in the 2011 Class 3A state final.
Other tough tests will follow, including the Asics Challenge Oct. 4-5 in Chicago against elite teams from around the country. Individual matches include road trips to 2011 Class 7A state champ Martin County on Oct.1, reigning 7A champ Venice on Oct. 10 and 19-time state champion Cardinal Gibbons on Oct. 15.
“I’m so looking forward to Venice,” McBean said. “That will be more than just a game. It’s a personal thing — revenge time.”
And whether Aquinas wins will determine whether the Raiders exit the gym feeling pain, pride … or both.