There will be no four-peat.
The St. Thomas Aquinas girls volleyball team made the three hour trip to the Venice on Saturday with dreams and hopes of a fourth consecutive Class 8A state championship.
But with the likes of ultra-talented players like Brooke Bauer (Pepperdine), Allison Marble (North Carolina State) and Emma Dixon (Tulane) having graduated and moved on from last year and squaring off against nationally-ranked Venice in a packed, hostile and noisy gym proved way too much to ask for the Raiders as they dropped a 25-21, 25-22, 25-17 straight set decision to the Indians in a Class 8A state semifinal at Venice High School.
The loss brought to an end a streak of 18 consecutive postseason wins for the Raiders (21-6), dating back to a state semifinal loss to Oviedo four years ago and second only to Cardinal Gibbons’ 26 straight postseason wins from 1984-90.
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“We were just a calamity of errors today, didn’t pass well, didn’t receive well, hitting errors, blocking errors, you name it,” said St. Thomas head coach Lisa Zielinski. “And when you’re going up against a team as good as Venice and we knew how good they were coming in, you just can’t make those kinds of mistakes because they’ll take advantage of that and they did.”
A close first set that saw neither team lead by more than two points turned sour for the Raiders when Venice went on a 6-0 run to break free from a 15-15 tie, eventually closing out a 25-21 win.
The second set was tied 19-19 when a key block by Venice’s top outside hitter Kelly Hubbard turned the momentum in the Indians’ direction paving the way for a 25-22 win.
Having won 32 consecutive sets coming into Saturday’s contest, clearly the Raiders were not used to being down two sets in any match and it showed as Venice, controlled the third set all the way in to close things out.
“I personally think we just had too much on our plates,” said senior setter Paula Cerame who finished with six kills and 12 digs and who was on all three championship teams and hoping to close out her high school career knowing nothing but state titles. “A lot of people expected a lot from us and we did too but we just went out there and....I don’t know, I think maybe we might’ve been too scared and put too much pressure on ourselves. There was no Brooke, Allison or Emma this year so we had to work a lot harder then we normally do and obviously the outcome was not what we wanted.”
Venice (26-3), which has won four state titles, its last coming in 2014, advances to next Saturday’s state championship game at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and will take on either Oviedo Hagerty or Tallahassee Leon.
“We played our hardest and left everything out on the court but our mentality, we just weren’t in it in the first few sets mentally and it hurt us,” said junior outside hitter Sophia Davis who led the way for the Raiders with 10 kills and five blocks. “It wasn’t until that third set that we realized our backs were to the well but by then it was too late. They had all the momentum at that point.”
Said Zielinski: “We were very fortunate to have a lot of talented players together over the past few years and when you lose that kind of talent, it’s not easy to replace it but I still thought we could’ve competed and played a little better today than we did but that’s part of having to play in this atmosphere, it can cause you into a lot of unforced errors and that’s what happened.”
▪ Class 9A state semifinal — Palm Beach Gardens d. Southwest 25-19, 27-29, 25-17, 25-21: The Eagles made their first state semifinal appearance since 2004.
▪ Class 5A state semifinal — Tampa Berkeley Prep d. Pine Crest 25-21, 25-11, 30-28
▪ Class 4A state semifinal — Palm Beach Benjamin d. Riviera Prep 3-0: The Bulldogs made their first-ever appearance in the state semifinals.