Only a handful of programs statewide could claim two decades’ worth of state championships in a particular sport before Saturday morning.
Cardinal Gibbons girls’ volleyball joined that category and became the first to win 20 state titles in a major team sport.
The Chiefs came up with a clutch performance in the fifth game against Ocala Trinity Catholic to secure a 3-2 (25-20, 20-25, 25-21, 20-25, 15-7) victory in the Class 4A state championship match at The Venue at UCF.
“It was a total team effort by these girls, 10 of which are seniors,” Gibbons coach Kathryn Reeber said. “They knew this was their last chance, and they didn’t want it to end without getting this done.”
Gibbons (25-7), which already owned the state record for most state titles in girls’ volleyball, became only the fifth school statewide to win 20 or more team state championships in a sport and third in Broward, joining Pine Crest (27) and Fort Lauderdale (22) girls’ swimming and diving.
The Chiefs joined a group that includes some of Florida’s storied programs, such as Jacksonville Bolles swimming and Brandon wrestling. But in major team sports such as football, basketball, volleyball, soccer, baseball and softball, only Gibbons has won 20 or more.
It was Gibbons’ first state title in volleyball since 2010 and the second for Reeber.
In a fitting move, former Gibbons athletic director and longtime volleyball coach Louise Crocco, who led the Chiefs to the first 18 state crowns, handed out the medals to the players and shared a hug with Reeber before she was presented the state championship trophy.
“When you walk into our gym and see all the [state championship] banners, what I love the most is you see all the names of those players listed together,” said setter Kassie Tejedor, who finished with a team-best 27 assists. “You don’t know who played more than another. They’re all part of that same family and that same tradition, and we’re a part of that now.”
Senior Sarah Martin finished with 14 kills and 23 assists, and helped Gibbons withstand the tough front line of Trinity Catholic (26-6), which helped it rally to force the decisive fifth game.
Senior Bailey Pearlman, who had a team-high 15 kills, delivered in the fifth with five kills to help Gibbons take control quickly and open a 10-3 lead. The advantage ballooned to 14-5.
“We told each other this would be our last time playing together, so we had to come out with a lot of energy and make this happen,” Pearlman said.
After surrendering two points, senior Daniella Molinari (14 kills, 11 digs) put the finishing touches on the championship victory with the clinching spike.
“That was like the cherry on top of the cake to finish it off,” Molinari said. “I can’t even describe the feeling.”
Cardinal Gibbons’ players had commented over the final three rounds of the playoffs that they felt a bit invincible after coming back from a 2-0 game deficit to beat rival Pine Crest in the regional semifinals.
Every time control of Saturday’s match seemed to slip away and defeat seemed possible, the Chiefs responded.
After falling behind 14-9 in the third game with the match tied at 1, Martin and Nikki Restrepo led an 11-1 surge that eventually helped Gibbons take a 2-1 lead. Macie Evans had 14 digs.
“Coming back against Pine Crest showed us it wasn’t all about talent, it’s about playing with our hearts,” Tejedor said. “We realized how much love we had for each other and that no one could beat us.”