There were two girls’ volleyball state champions from South Florida last year, and one of them could’ve been easily predicted as St. Thomas Aquinas won for the fourth time in five years.
The other state champ was highly unexpected and largely unknown — the Divine Savior Academy Sharks, a relatively new school located in the Doral section of Miami-Dade County.
The Sharks won a Class 3A championship in just their seventh season eligible for the title, and it came as a shock to coach Matt Willems.
“Unequivocally, no,” Willems said when asked if he thought his Sharks would win state last year. “I knew we would have a good team. But I also knew we would run into a buzz-saw named Lake Worth Christian [in the regional quarterfinals].
“That was the team we were focused on beating all year. When we beat them, we said, ‘Oh, man, what’s next?’”
The Sharks had been swept by Lake Worth Christian in the 2017 regional semifinals. And the Sharks were wary of Lake Worth Christian star Sarah Franklin, a Michigan State recruit.
But Franklin and her teammates weren’t quite good enough last year for the Sharks, who prevailed 25-23, 25-23, 27-25.
That win propelled the Sharks to state for the first time for any team sport in school history, and once there, in Naples, they defeated First Baptist Academy in the semifinals and previously unbeaten Bishop McLaughlin Catholic in the championship match.
“I cried tears of happiness,” Sharks outside hitter Fabiana Castro said of her reaction to winning state. “Winning state is the dream for any high school athlete.”
The Sharks won their final 19 matches to finish their season with a 25-1 record. Even more shocking, considering the program previously had no championship tradition, the Sharks won 53 consecutive sets to end the year.
This season, the Sharks won’t be able to sneak up on their opponents. They graduated just one starter — middle blocker Sofia Lugo — but added a pair of transfers at that same position in Marcelle Baez (Puerto Rico) and Nora Burgos-Heredia (Doral Academy).
Castro, a 5-9 senior who has committed to play Division I volleyball for Bryant, is the team’s top player. The Puerto Rico native led the team last year with 337 kills.
Sophomore Isabella Mendoza, a 5-11 outside hitter, led the team with 129 aces as a freshman. She is one of nine sophomores on the roster, including setter Isabel Macia (team-high 672 assists) and Belyssa Cruz (team-high 278 digs).
Mendoza, like Castro, should be a Division I player, Willems said. Yet, unlike Castro, Mendoza is relatively new to volleyball as this is just her third season playing the sport.
Prior to that, Mendoza competed in karate.
“In karate, I just did my own thing,” said Mendoza, whose family is from Ecuador. “In volleyball, you have to learn to work as a team and share the glory. When we won state, we did it as a family.”
In Class 4A, Cardinal Gibbons is volleyball royalty with more state titles (20) than any other school in Florida. Cardinal Gibbons reached the state semifinals last year but graduated seven seniors off of that team.
Dylan Andrews, a 5-10 outside hitter, is regarded as one of the best sophomores in the nation. Jeyhlen Thomas, a 6-2 senior middle blocker, has a Division I offer and should be a force.
Aquinas, which is in Class 6A this year, returns just two starters. And of the 10 players in its rotation, there are five sophomores and one freshman.
But don’t count out this very tall Raiders team, which enrolled has an emerging star in 6-4 sophomore Olivia Mogridge, who has numerous Division I offers. She’s the daughter of FIU assistant head football coach Allen Mogridge.
▪ District tournaments: Oct. 14-18.
▪ Regional quarterfinals: Oct. 23-24.
▪ Regional semifinals: Oct. 24-29.
▪ Regional finals: Oct. 29-Nov. 5.
▪ State finals: Nov. 15-16 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers
2018 STATE CHAMPS
Oviedo (9A); St. Thomas Aquinas (8A); Vanguard (7A); Merritt Island (6A); Trinity Catholic (5A); Shorecrest Prep (4A); Divine Savior (3A); Geneva (2A); Sneads (1A).
St. Brendan, in Class 4A this year, is a team to watch. The Sabres have six seniors who have made it to the regional finals three years in a row, including first-team All-Dade middle hitter Julie Lentz, who has committed to Florida Gulf Coast. Coach Emilio Urgell also has two top juniors.