St. Thomas Aquinas senior captain Mackenzie Zielinski and her teammates know about heartbreak.
Last year, the Raiders reached the state girls’ volleyball final for the first time since 2004, only to fall short to Venice.
“Going into the state final was a really exciting feeling for us because we hadn’t been there before as a team, but losing was one of the worst feelings ever,” Zielinski said. “Just knowing we were so close. … We couldn’t finish the season on top, and we all knew as returners we didn’t want to go out that same way.
“We were excited to start the season again because we knew we had experience feeling both emotions of the highs and lows.”
The Raiders (28-2) have come back with a sense of purpose, primed for Oviedo in a Class 7A state semifinal at 1 p.m. Thursday in Kissimmee. The winner will face Steinbrenner or Gulf Coast in the final.
Adversity is no stranger to St. Thomas Aquinas, a character that has strengthened a team returning all but three starters.
Bus trouble and traffic on the way to Tampa for a match against Berkeley Prep set the tone for a defeat. At the ASICS Challenge in Chicago, the Raiders finished fifth.
“I think after the tournament we played in Chicago we got a lot better because we faced a lot of hard teams from around the country,” said middle blocker Emma Dixon, the lone starting freshman.
In October, St. Thomas Aquinas beat Venice in a rematch of the state final, an achievement that lifted the team’s morale.
“We were all really excited about it,” Zielinski said. “If we put our minds to this it just gave us more confidence that we can beat them and we can beat anybody.”
It was a far cry from the mood immediately after the finals loss, when coach Lisa Zielinski questioned her team’s resilience, and how willing the girls were to push through the pain.
“They definitely want to avenge their loss from last year,” Zielinski said. “They rose to the occasion every time this year, and I think it will give them the confidence they’re going to need to close this one out hopefully.
“It is so hard, and I think they could’ve played better and they want to make sure we’re playing 100 percent every point. Either way it goes [at least] we gave it our all. I don’t know if we could necessarily say that last year.”
Since regional play, the Raiders have dropped just one set over three matches against Hialeah-Miami Lakes, Doral Reagan and Delray Beach Atlantic. Their last loss came on Oct. 5 against McAuley.
Zielinski believes her players have begun clicking at the best time. She credits senior leadership and younger girls’ contributions to the success.
“They rose to the occasion every time this year, and I think it will give them the confidence they’re going to need to close this one out hopefully,” Zielinski said.