Lisa Zielinski has coached her share of talented volleyball teams during her 27 years coaching St. Thomas Aquinas.
But few have had the combination of skill and maturity the Raiders displayed in 2015.
“I haven’t had a team that I can remember that was this dedicated,” Zielinski said. “I have freshmen and sophomores playing and starting, and the focus that they had was just so unusual to see in a team this young.”
Controlling the match nearly from start to finish, Aquinas swept Tampa Plant for a 25-16, 25-17, 25-15 win at The Venue at UCF that secured the Raiders’ second consecutive Class 7A title in what was their third appearance in the final round in four seasons.
During what was their second trip to Central Florida in as many weeks, the Raiders did something Saturday they had never done before — win back-to-back state championships.
Aquinas won its fourth state title overall and joined Cardinal Gibbons and Pine Crest as the only Broward schools to win at least two consecutive state volleyball championships.
Aquinas (31-2), ranked in the top 60 nationally by Prepvolleyball.com, took control of the match with Plant (27-7) with the same focus and cohesiveness that carried it to a 31-2 record this season.
“[Aquinas] is like a college team out there,” Plant coach Margeaux Sinibaldi said. “They’re tall and they’re out there reading everything. You don’t have teams that have those many girls that play that kind of level of volleyball together. It’s tough to break a team down that’s that tall.”
The Raiders’ only losses came against Class 3A champion Gainesville PK Yonge (ranked in the nation’s top 10) and Illinois’ Marist High, also nationally ranked.
Juniors Brook Bauer (team-high 15 kills) and Allison Marble (eight kills) patrolled the outside while VCU commit Emma Dixon, another junior, finished with eight kills as she dominated the middle. Sophomore Derry Costigan, a preseason All-American, conducted the attack with 19 assists, and McHugh had 14 digs.
Zielinski, who has 710 wins during her Aquinas career, was recently inducted into the Broward County Hall of Fame. Although her team entered as the favorite, she commended her players on their ability to not lose focus.
Aquinas scored the first seven points of the match and never allowed Plant any sustained scoring runs.
Zielinski credited the team’s road experience as a major contributing factor to its success this season.
Aquinas played five matches at the Asics Challenge in Chicago, and beat state powerhouse Venice on the road during the regular season and again last week in the state semifinal.
The FHSAA changed the playoff format this season, altering it to where the state semifinals were played at host schools’ gyms instead of neutral sites.
And graduating five seniors, only two of whom are starters in libero Kaylie McHugh (Tulane commitment) and outside hitter Courtney Charneco, it appears Aquinas has enough to make a run at three state titles in a row.
“Each match had us particularly focused because we were always playing in hostile gyms with teams really trying to beat us,” Dixon said. “We had to take each match one step at a time.”
Girls’ volleyball state finals
Class 8A: Winter Springs d. Jupiter, 25-14, 25-15, 22-25, 25-14
Class 7A: St. Thomas Aquinas d. Tampa Plant 3-0 (25-16, 25-17, 25-15)
Class 6A: Jensen Beach d. New Port Richey Mitchell 3-0 (25-13, 25-12, 26-24)
Class 5A: Orlando Bishop Moore d. Bishop Kenny 3-0 (25-13, 25-12, 26-24)
Class 4A: Cardinal Gibbons d. Ocala Trinity Catholic 3-2 (25-20, 20-25, 25-21, 20-25, 15-7)
Class 3A: P.K. Yonge d. Palmer Trinity, 3-0 (25-16, 25-11, 25-14)
Class 2A: Lake Worth Christian d. St. John Lutheran, 3-1 (25-22, 18-25, 25-22, 25-20)
Class 1A: Sneads d. Mayo Lafayette, 3-0 (25-13, 25-9, 25-12)