There was never a doubt in their minds it could be done.
For the St. Thomas Aquinas girls’ volleyball team, making history was simply a matter of staying on course.
The Raiders didn’t let anyone derail their pursuit of a third consecutive state championship, and on Saturday afternoon they sealed it with a 25-17, 25-21, 25-22 sweep of Tampa Plant in the Class 8A championship match at West Port High School.
“For all of us, it was really big deal to do this for each other before we head off to college,” senior outside hitter Allison Marble said. “All the seniors really pushed each other and we all just motivated each other throughout the season.”
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St. Thomas Aquinas (30-2) won its fifth state title all-time and joined Cardinal Gibbons and Pine Crest as the only Broward County schools to win three or more consecutive state titles in the sport.
The Raiders championships rank second all-time in Broward County history behind Cardinal Gibbons’ state-record 20 titles.
Aquinas coach Lisa Zielinski has coached the Raiders to all five state titles — the second-most for a Broward coach behind legendary former Gibbons coach Louise Crocco (18).
“I can’t believe it’s been three [championships] in a row, but I shouldn’t be surprised,” Zielinski said. “These girls always motivate me with their attitude and discipline and their work ethic. I think this year showed how focused and how driven they were the way they played.”
St. Thomas swept Plant (25-4) for the second consecutive season in the state final.
The Panthers pushed the Raiders early and took a 15-12 lead in the first set before the Raiders answered with seven points in a row led by the powerful and pinpoint serving of junior libero Paula Cerame. Aquinas outscored Plant 13-2 to end the set.
Cerame, a University of Florida commitment, said she worked on improving her serving accuracy as the season went on.
“Toward the beginning of the season, I was struggling with my serve and it took a lot of practice,” Cerame said. “It was intense working on it in practice and just focusing on the serve.”
Cerame is one of six St. Thomas Aquinas players committed to Division I schools.
Brook Bauer, considered one of the top players in the nation, is a Pepperdine signee, Marble is headed to North Carolina State, and fellow senior Emma Dixon is going to Virginia Commonwealth. Junior setter Derry Costigan is committed to Boston College and senior Kirsten McClain is committed to Georgia Southern.
Junior middle hitter Jada Gardner and sophomore setter Kelsey O’Loughlin should join them in the near future, and each played key roles in Saturday’s victory.
Aquinas players credited their experience playing in the Durango Classic in Las Vegas in September for preparing them for another championship run. The Raiders went 5-2 at the tournament playing elite teams from California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.
A week after nearly losing to Bradenton Manatee in the state semifinals after taking a 2-0 lead, the St. Thomas coaching staff stressed the importance of not letting up if it got ahead again.
“That’s pretty much all we talked about,” Zielinski said. “We know Plant is a great team and they were motivated because of last year. You’re not coming into the state semis or the finals against a team that isn’t strong and motivated. They’re going to push you. We weren’t going to relax.”
The Raiders followed orders and maintained their intensity, clinching the title on a kill by Bauer.
“It was surreal being around my whole team in that moment and being able to do that for them,” Bauer said. “I was in the air and all I thought was that I love the people around me so much and I was so happy I could do this for my team and Coach Z and the school in general.”
State volleyball finals
Class 9A: Boca Raton d. Oviedo 25-16, 25-21, 25-22
Class 8A: St. Thomas Aquinas d. Tampa Plant 25-17, 25-21, 25-22
Class 7A: Ocala Vanguard vs. Stuart South Fork, inc.
Class 6A: Orlando Bishop Moore d. Ponte Vedra 25-11, 25-15, 25-23
Class 5A: Westminster Christian d. Orlando Lake Highland Prep 25-21, 25-23, 16-25, 13-25, 15-12
Class 4A: Orlando First Academy d. Palm Beach Benjamin 26-24, 25-20, 25-17
Class 3A: Gainesville St. Francis d. Naples Seacrest Country Day 25-19, 28-26, 25-23
Class 2A: Ocala St. John Lutheran d. Winter Park Geneva 29-27, 25-12, 25-10
Class 1A: Sneads d. Newberry 25-8, 25-18, 25-10