St. Thomas Aquinas coach Lisa Zielinski smiled wryly as she sat down to face reporters Friday after the Raiders’ Class 7A state volleyball semifinal.
“I just want to say I’m really happy to be the second interview after the game,” she quipped.
Winners go second, of course. And after too many first interviews in recent trips to the final four, the Raiders once again are one step away from taking home that elusive third state title after sweeping Tampa Steinbrenner 25-12, 25-21, 25-23.
Raiders ace Nikki Lyons helped trigger a 13-point blitz to put the Warriors in a hole minutes after the first set began. Steinbrenner regrouped admirably after that, but St. Thomas still managed to withstand its best shot.
“One of the big things we talked about was we wanted to go out there and after the game have no, ‘We should have done this,’” said Lyons, who has committed to college ball at Pepperdine. “I think we all had that mentality as a team.”
Lyons did her part with 23 kills, coming on just 30 attempts, and three aces in that early 13-0 run. Brook Bauer added 12 kills, and Derry Costigan racked up 44 assists.
St. Thomas (27-4) will play for the 7A crown at 1 p.m. Saturday against Winter Springs (28-3), which went four sets to eliminate Bradenton Lakewood Ranch.
It’s the Raiders’ second trip to the championship game in three seasons, falling to Venice in the 2012 final. The bigger picture, though, has seen St. Thomas reach five previous final fours in seven years, all without the ultimate prize.
You have to go back to 2004 to find St. Thomas’ last volleyball crown.
“It’s your whole season, culminating into one match,” Zielinski said. “I’m very happy with where we are right now. We’re healthy, so you couldn’t ask for a better situation going into the final. We just hope we play better than the other team.”
Steinbrenner (23-6) also sought to expunge a semifinal loss last year, but had to deal with a little shell shock after Lyons’ serving turned a 4-3 deficit in the opener to a 17-3 chasm. Bauer added three kills and a block in the stretch.
“We came in with a mind-set where if we could pull off the first set, we could make a great run at it,” Steinbrenner coach Laura Praetorius said. “Unfortunately, I think the first game was a tone-setter.”
CORAL REEF LOSES
In a Class 8A semifinal, Coral Reef landed the early punches but it was Jupiter that eventually scored the knockout.
Jupiter found its rhythm with an eight-point run late in the first set, seizing the momentum from the Barracudas and setting the stage for a 25-19, 25-20, 25-9 sweep.
“We went head-to-head with them that whole first set,” Coral Reef coach Yasmin Ortiz said. “But the moment they got the momentum, we tried to regain it but we were not able to. Hats off to Jupiter in that sense. They were able to get the momentum and maintain it.”
Jupiter (29-1), whose only loss was a five-setter to Middleburg at the Bolles Invitational in early October, seeks its first state championship Saturday against Bradenton Manatee.
The Barracudas end their season at 25-5, falling one step shy of the title game for the second time in three years. Two years ago, they fell to Winter Park in the semifinals.
“They accomplished a lot and went through a lot just to get here,” said Ortiz, who spent a month away from the team preparing to give birth to twin boys.
Team captain Kristine Rios oversaw practices during her absence, getting texts from Ortiz each day on which drills to run. Ortiz returned just before the district playoffs, and Coral Reef had to survive five-set tests against Southwest Miami and Ferguson to win the region.
“I’m proud of all we accomplished,” Rios said.
If you go
What: The state girls’ volleyball finals.
When: Through Saturday.
Where: Silver Spurs Arena, 1875 Silver Spur Lane, Kissimmee.
Friday’s results – Class 8A state semifinals: Jupiter d. Coral Reef, 25-19, 25-20, 25-9; Bradenton Manatee d. Orange City University, 25-22, 25-23, 25-22; Class 7A semifinals: St. Thomas Aquinas vs. Lutz George Steinbrenner, inc.; Winter Springs vs. Bradenton Lakewood Ranch, inc.; Class 5A final: Merritt Island vs. Jacksonville Bishop Kenny, inc.; Class 6A final: Venice vs. Ocala Vanguard, inc.
Saturday’s schedule – Class 8A final: Manatee vs. Jupiter, 11 a.m.; Class 7A final: St. Thomas Aquinas-Steinbrenner winner vs. Winter Springs-Lakewood Ranch winner, 1:05.