Seconds before the start of its Class 8A regional final win over West Broward on Saturday, Coral Reef outside hitter Jasmin Hodge belted out the Star-Spangled Banner — a cappella.
It was an impressive performance and also typical of a Coral Reef season in which the girls’ volleyball players have had to do a little bit of everything — including coaching themselves.
Coach Yasmin Ortiz was gone from for a month (Sept.17 to Oct.20) in order to have her twin boys — Antonio and Santino.
In her absence, the Coral Reef players, led by senior captain Kristine Rios, ran practice. The team’s assistant coach, Erin Shelow, was only there for games as she is also busy running the South Dade girls’ soccer program.
“It’s difficult being a player and a coach because you have to keep yourself in check and everyone else, too,” said Rios, a 5-8 outside hitter. “There’s been more emphasis on us to come together on our own.”
The Barracudas have come together just fine, reaching the state semifinals for the second time in three years.
On Friday in Kissimmee, Coral Reef (26-4) will take on Jupiter (28-1), which is ranked No.17 in the nation by MaxPreps.
Neither school has won a state title, but Jupiter, by virtue of its ranking, would seem to be a favorite. Its only loss was in five sets to Middleburg, which made it to state in Class 6A.
Jupiter, which lost in the state semifinals in 2003, 2007 and 2013, has a pair of 6-foot starters and a 5-10 outside hitter who has committed to UNC-Asheville.
Meanwhile, Coral Reef’s kills leaders are Rios and 5-6 Lexie Mesa. No one on the Coral Reef team is taller than 5-11 — not that Ortiz is concerned.
“Sometimes height is not the biggest concern as long as you have good jumpers, and we do,” Ortiz said. “Because we are a shorter team, we know how to hit it off their hands or hit it around the block. We can find open spots and not just hit it blind.”
If Coral Reef were to pull the upset, Saturday’s state final would seem to be just as difficult. On the other side of the bracket is Bradenton Manatee (23-5), which is led by 6-4 LSU recruit Jacqui Armer and 6-1 Tulsa recruit Haley Coulter. The team starts three Coulter sisters.
Manatee plays Orange City University (20-6) which has four players committed to colleges such as High Point, Appalachian State, Campbell and Daytona State.
Then again, Coral Reef has been preparing for this weekend all year. Ortiz, 40, told the players about her pregnancy in May and began the process of getting them ready to carry on without her.
Before each practice, Ortiz would text Rios with the drills she wanted the players to run, complete with diagrams and a quote of the day such as:
“Have a great practice. We’re one step closer to our goal. Before bedtime, visualize yourself playing the sport you love.”
The plan worked, and Ortiz said this team, while not as tall as the 2012 Coral Reef squad that made state, has more experience, better ball control and a deeper bench.
And perhaps most important, the kids have bought in to this as a player-oriented season.
“We were really happy for Coach to finally get pregnant and have her babies,” said junior libero Danielle De Souza, who joins Rios as the only returning starters from the 2012 team. “We knew it was going to be a challenge for us.
“But as long as we were able to focus and dedicate ourselves to practice, we knew we could make it to where we are now.”