Ferguson volleyball coach Greg Shanower admired Michelle Cuervo’s athletic ability from the beginning.
He is a fan of her humble attitude even more.
“I remember when she tried out for the team when she started high school, it was obvious how good of a player she was,” Shanower said. “But I heard she asked her mom, ‘I wonder if I made the JV team or varsity.’ It’s great to see a player so good and yet so humble.”
Cuervo, a preseason All-American outside hitter by Prepvolleyball.com, is only one reason a talented Ferguson squad has state-championship aspirations this season.
And although that kind of a statement has seemed farfetched for most Miami-Dade County schools in the past, the Falcons might just have enough to make it realistic.
“If we keep that kind of humility and focus, and obviously stay healthy throughout the season, there’s no reason this team can’t get to state and compete with the state’s best if we get there,” Shanower said.
Shanower has coached Ferguson to state in 2009 and 2013, losing in the semifinal round both times. But he said the 2015 Falcons have the potential to be his best yet.
In addition to Cuervo, who at 5-11 is one of the most versatile and talented outside hitters in the nation, Ferguson returns starting hitters Gabriela Beverly and Natalie Hoyos.
Beverly, a 6-foot middle hitter, made the USA High Performance team for Florida this past summer and was part of a gold-medal-winning team.
Hoyos (5-10) will provide depth outside along with 5-9 junior Alex Gonzalez, who Shanower said moved to her natural position after playing in the middle last season.
And Michelle isn’t the only one in the Cuervo family talented at volleyball.
Her younger sister, Melanie, a freshman, will be the team’s starting setter. Shanower said the 14-year-old was already playing and starring on teams with 17-year-old players.
“Talent-wise, it could be the best team we’ve had in the past 10 years, but knowing what is out there, we have to stay humble and stay hungry,” Shanower said. “If we do, I think we can have a pretty deep playoff run.”
Ferguson was eliminated in last year’s Class 8A regional semifinals by Coral Reef, which moved on to the state final four. The Barracudas present a big obstacle again this season with outside hitter Lexie Mesa and libero Danielle De Souza leading a tough lineup.
The sting of that loss is something Shanower said his group has not forgotten.
“Everything we’ve done in practice this summer has been about finishing,” Shanower said. “The girls felt like they didn’t finish last season, and they don’t want to let that happen again.”
TIGHT RACE IN 4A
Westminster Christian and Ransom Everglades, who each won state titles in 2013 to end the county’s long championship drought after 18 seasons, will now have to get through each other to get back to state.
Westminster has advanced to state a county-record four consecutive times and returns star outside hitters Nikkia Benitez and Cici Hernandez. The Warriors will have to contend with an experienced Ransom squad, as well as state runner-up Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest and Gulliver.
Ransom Everglades, which lost to Pine Crest in the regional finals by one point last season, returns a talented roster that includes senior outside hitters Sophie Bullard and Sophia Carrera-Justiz, as well as sophomore Sydney Bent.
With Ransom and Westminster moving up to 4A, Palmer Trinity becomes an immediate favorite to reach state in 3A. The Falcons return a loaded squad led by 6-1 junior hitter Ashley Quero, who coach William Gonzalez said is being recruited by at least 10 colleges.
Aug. 21-22: Preseason tournaments
Aug. 24: Regular season begins
Sept. 11-12: Coral Park Invitational
Sept. 18-19: Berkeley Prep Invitational in Tampa
Oct. 9-10: Adidas/Florida Christian Invitational
Oct. 13: GMAC championship
Oct. 16-17: Smoothie King Invitational
Oct. 19-23: Districts
Oct. 27-28: Regional quarterfinals
Oct. 31: Regional semifinals
Nov. 3: Regional finals
Nov. 7: State semifinals
Nov. 13-14: State championships
DEFENDING STATE CHAMPIONS
Class 8A: Bradenton Manatee; 7A: Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas; 6A: Venice; 5A: Jacksonville Bishop Kenny; 4A: Gainesville P.K. Yonge; 3A: Clearwater Central Catholic; 2A: Ocala St. John Lutheran; 1A: Sneads.
PRESEASON TEAM RANKINGS
1. Ransom Everglades; 2. Westminster Christian; 3. Ferguson; 4. Palmer Trinity; 5. Gulliver; 6. Coral Reef; 7. Lourdes; 8. Killian; 9. Palmetto; 10. Southwest.
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS
MH Debbie Ajagbe, Ransom, 6-0, Jr.
S Addie Arill, Palmetto, 5-0, Sr.
OH Nikkia Benitez, Westminster Christian, 5-11, Jr.
OH Sydney Bent, Ransom, 5-10, So.
MH Gabriela Beverly, Ferguson, 6-0, Sr.
OH Brittany Bilotti, Lourdes, 5-6, Sr.
OH Sophie Bullard, Ransom, 5-9, Sr.
OH Sophia Carrera-Justiz, Ransom, 5-8, Sr.
OH Michelle Cuervo, Ferguson, 5-11, Jr.
LIB Alejandra Garcia, Divine Savior, 5-6, Jr.
LIB Danielle De Souza, Coral Reef, 5-4, Sr.
MH Jocelyn Garcia, Southwest, 5-10, Jr.
S Juliette Hamilton, Palmer Trinity, 5-6, Jr.
OH Cici Hernandez, Westminster, 5-11, Sr.
OH Balnca Mengotti, Gulliver, 5-7, Sr.
OH Caro Mengotti, Gulliver, 5-7, Sr.
OH Lexie Mesa, Coral Reef, 5-7, Sr.
OH Ashley Quero, Palmer Trinity, 6-1, Jr.
OH Ashley Reid, Killian, 5-8, Sr.
OH Gabriela Socarras, Carrollton, 5-8, Jr.
OH Ashley Thompson, Palmetto, 5-11, Jr.
NOTE: For team-by-team outlooks, go online to www.miamiherald.com/high-schools and click on the volleyball preview story.
1. FERGUSON (Coach Greg Shanower). Last year: 23-5 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OH Michelle Cuervo, 5-11, Jr.; MH Gabriela Beverly, 6-0, Sr.; OH-S Natalie Hoyos, 5-10, Sr.; OH Alexandra Gonzalez, 5-9, Jr.; S Melanie Cuervo, 5-9, Fr.; MH Kasandra Lopez, 5-9, Jr.
2. CORAL REEF (Coach Yasmin Ortiz, 8th year, 131-54). Last year: 26-5 (State semifinalist). Top players: OH Lexie Mesa, 5-7, Sr.; LIB Danielle DeSouza, 5-4, Sr.; MH Alana Arabitg, 5-10, Sr.; S Amanda Orzechowicz, 5-5, Sr.
3. LOURDES (Coach Pedro Penate, 5th year, 78-33). Last year: 15-13. Top players: OH Brittany Bilotti, 5-6, Sr.; S Maegan Cuesta, 5-5, Sr.; OH Natalia Reyes, 5-9, Sr.; OH Ava Erickson, 5-7, Jr.; MH Jacqueline Pantin, 6-0, Sr.
4. KILLIAN (Coach Clinton Reid, 15th year at KIL, 19th overall). Last year: 17-6 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: OH Ashley Reid, 5-8, Sr.; S Ryann Puente, 5-5, Jr.; LIB Angelina Rodriguez, 5-5, Sr.; MH Jamesia Henderson, 5-10, Jr.; MH Alanna Anon, 5-10, Sr.; RS Giulana La Mendola, 5-8, So.
5. PALMETTO (Coach Mauricio Palacios, 1st year). Top players: S Addie Arill, 5-2, Sr.; OH Ashley Thompson, 5-10, Jr.; OH Lauren Phillips, 5-8, Sr.; OH Julia Decker, 5-10, Jr.
6. VARELA (Coach John Alvarez, 1st year). Last year: 12-10. Top players: OH Claudia Campero, 5-8, Sr.; S Fabiola Plaza, 5-5, Sr.; OH Tiffany Bolanos, 5-9, Jr.; LIB Sophia Renteria, 5-3, So.
7. HIALEAH GARDENS (Coach Karina Borge-Chediak, 7th year at HG, 9th overall). Last year: Regional quarterfinalist. Top players: OH Amanda Hernandez, Sr.; MH Michelle Perez, Jr.; Tatyana Garcia, So.; S Enaili Delgado, Jr.; LIB Michelle Yang, Sr.
8. BRADDOCK. Last year: 12-9. Top players: OH Angelica Perez, 5-5, Sr.; OH Patricia Martin, 5-8, Jr.; S Esther Rojas, 5-3, Jr.
9. CORAL PARK (Coach KC Trimble, 4th year at CP, 12th overall). Last year: 11-11. Top players: S Nicole Uzieda, 5-8, Sr.; OH Ashley Fornaris, 5-5, Sr.; LIB Bianca Tejeda, 5-5, Jr.; MH Laura Garcia, 5-9, Sr.; OH Natalie Sotolongo, 5-9, Jr.; RS Cynthia Cabrera, 5-10, Jr.
10. SOUTH DADE (Coach Damian Goderich, 2nd year, 8-16). Last year: 8-16. Top players: OH Nicole Bryant, 6-0, Sr.; LIB Chantel Jean, 5-5, So.; S-OH Tabitha Rodriguez, 5-6, So.
11. CORAL GABLES (Coach Monica De La Vega, 1st year). Last year: 4-10. Top players: OH Yara Faour, 5-8, So.; MH Nicole Cuellar, 5-10, Jr.; OH Caroline Navy, 5-7, So.; OH Taylor Fay, 5-7, Sr.; MH Natalie Regalado, 5-8, Jr.
1. MOURNING (Coach Dee Rey). Last year: 20-3 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OH-MH Camila Rubinovich, 5-6, Jr.; OH-S Karla Schaefer, 5-8, Jr.; OH Milana Datieva, 5-8, Fr.
2. MATER ACADEMY (Coach Elsa Lopez, 3rd year at MA, 7th overall). Last year: 15-4. Top players: OH Rashell Rodriguez, Jr.; OH Barbara Marin, Sr.; OH Amanda Diaz, Sr.; LIB Emily De La Pena, So.; MH Bersil Iglesias, So.; MH Jasmine Paddyfoot, So.
1. TERRA (Coach Plymouth Ann-Cook, 1st year). Last year: 22-5 (Regional finalist). Top players: OH Nikki Dequesada, 6-0, Sr.; DS-S Carolina Ruiz, 5-6, Sr.; OH Elyse Anaya, 5-10, Jr.; MH Cailin Donnelly, 5-9, Sr.; OH Anabeth Aquino-Martinez, 5-7, Sr.; DS Taylor Scott, 5-5, Sr.
2. MIAMI SPRINGS (Coach Saul Rapalo, 1st year). Last year: 15-2 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: Nicole Borroto, Sr.; Melany Matheu, Sr.; Dorianys Mirabal, Sr.
3. DORAL (Coach Timothy Edfors, 1st year at Doral, 7th overall, 120-34). Last year: 10-9 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: MH Marina Paula, 5-10, Sr.; OH Vanessa Rodriguez, 5-9, Sr.; RS-S Allison Lacayo, 5-9, Sr.; DS Emily Martinez, 5-3, Sr.; DS Francis Lagos, 5-3, So.; OH Gabriela Rosales, 5-6, Sr.
1. RANSOM EVERGLADES (Coach Roger Peluso, 17th year at RE, 27th overall). Last year: 26-5 (Regional finalist). Top players: OH Sydney Bent, 5-10, So.; OH Sofia Carrera-Justiz, 5-8, Sr.; OH Sophie Bullard, 5-9, Sr.; MH Debbie Ajagbe, 6-0, Jr.; S Annie Elkin, 5-6, Sr.; S Christina Ortiz, 5-6, Sr.
2. WESTMINSTER CHRISTIAN (Coach Julie Doan, 11th year). Last year: . Top players: OH Nikkia Benitez, 5-11, Jr.; OH Cici Hernandez, 5-11, Sr.; OH Priscilla Hernandez, 5-8, So.; S Quinn Blanco, 5-7, Jr.; OH-LIB Sophia Poveda, 5-7, Jr.
3. GULLIVER (Coach Ed Potter, 6th year, 174-72). Last year: 15-14 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OH Caro Mengotti, 5-7, Sr.; OH Balnca Mengotti, 5-7, Sr.; S Sarah Lobo, 5-8, Jr.; MH Isa Lamus, 6-0, So.; MH Lauren Gold, 6-0, So.
4. ST. BRENDAN (Coach Julio Arnaiz, 4th year, 46-33). Last year: 16-10. Top players: S Sophia Sires, Sr.; MH Natalie Perez, 5-11, Sr.; OH Carolina Caram, 5-10, Sr.; LIB Nikki Garcia, 5-3, Jr.; OH Marcie Fernandez, 5-10, So.; OH Cristina Diaz, 5-7, Sr.
5. MONSIGNOR PACE (Coach Markia Brown-Seetal, 8th year). Last year: Regional quarterfinalist. Top players: OH Sophia Gonzalez, 5-8, Sr.; MH-OH Sharell Nairn, 5-11, Sr.; OH-MH Alyssa Jean-Jacques, 5-7, Jr.; LIB Lauren Hofmann, 5-1, Sr.; RS Nicole Diaz, 5-8, Jr.
6. LA SALLE. (Coach Odette Partridge, 9th year). Last year: 13-12 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: S Veronica Gomez, 5-7, Sr.; OH Nina Gutierrez, 5-8, So.; MH Sofia Falero, 5-9, So.; LIB Emily Del Valle, 5-7, Sr.
7. CARROLLTON (Coach Matt Althage, 4th year at CAR, 13th overall). Last year: 14-12. Top players: OH Gabriela Socarras, 5-8, Jr.; MH Lucy Hornbacher, 6-0, Jr.; OH Paola Perez, 5-7, Sr.; OH Andreina Rodriguez, 5-6, Jr.; OH-DS Rebecca Fernandez, 5-6, So.; S-DS Victoria Figarola, 5-6, Jr.
8. MAST ACADEMY (Coach Gaston Rubio, 2nd year, 10-6). Last year: 10-6. Top players: OH Mia Boloix, 5-11, Jr.; MH Jennifer Kurack, 5-9, Jr.; OH Ghislaine Fandel, 5-6, Jr.
1. PALMER TRINITY (Coach William Gonzalez). Last year: 18-6 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OH-MH Ashley Quero, 6-1, Jr.; MH Grace Hibsman, Sr.; S Juliette Hamilton, Jr.; OH Daniella Diaz, Jr.
2. MIAMI COUNTRY DAY (Coach Michele Rosamiglia, 3rd year, 34-18). Last year: 17-9 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: OH Brooke Pumo, 5-11, Sr.; S Sasha Jenkins-St. Prix, 5-6, Jr.; MH Nyasia John, 5-11, So.; MH Indira Dandridge, 6-2, Jr.; OH Jade Iadarola, 5-9, So.; RS Mia Paez, 5-8, Jr.; LIB Samantha Dorfman, 5-5, So.
3. FLORIDA CHRISTIAN (Coach Beth King, 11th year, 163-77). Last year: 13-12. Top players: OH Katerina Rey, 5-7, Sr.; MH Brittany Beckelheimer, 6-1, Jr.; LIB Nicole Fontela, 5-5, Jr.; OH Stephanie Watkins, 5-8, Sr.; S Jessica Barcelo, 5-5, Sr.; OH Alex Perez, 5-6, Sr.
1. DIVINE SAVIOR (Coach Matt Willems, 2nd year at DS, 11th overall, 116-119). Last year: 20-4 (Regional finalist). Top players: OH Alejandra Rodriguez, 5-4, Jr.; S Ana Sofia Diaz, 5-5, So.; RS Bianca Wynter, 5-7, Fr.
2. RIVIERA PREP (Coach Emilio Rodriguez, 4th year, 33-11). Last year: 18-4 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OH Nico Maietto, So.; LIB Alessandra Iurman, Fr.; OH Victoria Caldera, Jr.; MH Melody Hershman, So.; DS Veronica Sena, So.; RS Samantha Martinez, So.
3. WESTWOOD CHRISTIAN (Coach Keri LaVigne, 3rd year at WC, 4th overall, 36-39). Last year: 10-11. Top players: S Jiselly Lopez, 5-7, Sr.; LIB-S Lauren Amat, 5-5, Fr.; OH Hollie Thomson, 5-7, Jr.; MH Mercy Hernandez, 6-0, Jr.; MH Gaby Morales, 5-10, Sr.