The drama equaled something perhaps right out of a Hollywood movie.
The St. Thomas Aquinas girls volleyball team was just 90 minutes away from taking the floor against Tampa Plant in a Class 8A state championship game on Thursday night.
And yet, after fighting their way through last week’s state semifinal battle over Venice without her on the sidelines, they didn’t know if their longtime veteran head coach Lisa Zielinski would be there on the bench with them this time either.
Having left for Gainesville six days earlier when her 25-year-old son Zach required emergency heart surgery for an aortic aneurism, Zielinski had spent the week up there and did not know for sure if she would be able to make the trip down until finally deciding at noon on Thursday to jump in the car.
And when she walked in the locker room, her Lady Raiders went crazy, mobbing her with emotional hugs. Then they went out and showed how much she meant to them by defeating Plant 3-1 (17-25, 25-23, 25-17, 25-19) at Suncoast Credit Union Arena to capture their fourth state title in the last five years and sixth overall.
“I kind of thought I was always going to try and I guess I told my coaches I was going to be a ‘game-time decision’ and it really was,” said Zielinski, who was at the controls of the program when they won their first two state titles back in the 90s. “He (Zach) was having a few problems breathing this morning on the respirator but it got better and once I was comfortable that everything was going to be OK and of course my husband was up there with him, I got in the car and headed down. It was an emotional moment when I walked in, these were my seniors and I really wanted to try and be there for them.”
“We were warming up in the locker room and watching tape of Plant and all of sudden she walks in and we went crazy,” said senior outside hitter Paige Barash, who recorded 14 kills and 10 digs. “We were so confused and excited at the same time that she showed up. It meant so much to us that she left her situation to come down to be here with us tonight.”
Perhaps overly fired up over their coach showing up, or just raw nerves, the Raiders (26-5) struggled out of the gate as they fell behind Plant (27-2) early in the first set and never caught up, falling 25-17.
Even the second set was nip-and-tuck all the way before St. Thomas pulled in front 23-18 before surviving a Plant mini-rally to hang on and win the set 25-23.
“I thought that was definitely the key moment,” said Zielinski, who was heading right back to Gainesville Friday morning. “We absolutely had to win that second set because Plant is a very good team and digging our way out of an 0-2 hole would’ve been very challenging.”
From there, the Raiders took control of the match, opening up five- and six-point leads midway through each of the next two sets.
“I think we might’ve been a little nervous at first so it was just a matter of us settling down and playing the way we know how,” said senior middle hitter Sophia Davis, who led the way for her team with 17 kills and 8 blocks. “Having said that, Plant is good. We knew they would come in and play us hard.”
As far as how they got things turned around, Davis, a James Madison commit, credited another senior, libero Amanda Silvestri with settling them down.
“Amanda pulled us aside and told us that every single point, even the first one in a set, leads up to the 25th so that became our mentality, one point at a time,” said Davis. “We knew as seniors, this was our last chance and wanted to go out winners.”
Also turning in solid performances to held lead the Raiders were Mallory Barash (19 assists), Silvestri (15 digs), Kelsey O’Loughlin (25 assists) and Olivia Mogridge (11 kills, 3 aces).