Pine Crest once set the standard for girls’ volleyball statewide, winning three consecutive state titles from 2001 to 2003.
The Panthers are hoping last year’s runner-up finish in Kissimmee is the start of another wave of success.
Pine Crest returns five starters, including a talented core of juniors that should give it a slight edge in a revamped Class 4A state-title race that should be among the most competitive in the state this season.
“The alignment made things even tougher, but this has been been one of the toughest classes in the entire state for a while,” Pine Crest coach Albert Sturgeon said. “We know we have to fight even harder this season to get to state.
“Last year, we were a little under the radar, but now everybody is going to bring their best game when they play us.”
The Panthers went 23-8 last season and reaching the state final marked their best season since 2007. Their path to state this season got tougher with the addition of traditional powerhouse Cardinal Gibbons to a district that already included Calvary Christian and Chaminade-Madonna.
Miami Ransom Everglades, the 2013 Class 4A state champion, was already in the region and is now joined by Miami Westminster Christian, a state champion in 2013 in Class 3A and a squad that has advanced to state four consecutive seasons.
The Panthers edged Ransom in a five-set nailbiter in the regional finals last season to make it to state.
Senior libero Sara Duque, the Miami Herald’s Class 4A-2A Player of the Year, will once again be the focal point of one of the best defensive teams in the state. Duque, who has several offers from colleges, had 450 digs, 50 aces, 28 assists last season. She is one of three Broward players to be named to PrepVolleyball.com’s Preseason All-America Watch List.
“Sara improves every year, and everybody around her gets better by benefiting from how she plays,” Sturgeon said. “She’s better at seeing the game more than others. Her vision on the court is incredible.”
Along with Duque, Pine Crest returns 6-0 senior Caitlin Harvey (150 kills last season), 5-9 senior middle hitter Brianna Bruny and 5-9 junior outside hitter Ariana Altieri. Junior setter Kylie Bruder (5-10) is also back in the lineup.
Pine Crest also got deeper with the addition of sophomore outside hitter Lauren Potter and freshman libero Stephanie Potter — both transfers from Gulliver. Sturgeon said the two are recovering from injuries and might miss the start of the season, however.
St. Thomas Aquinas did come home with the gold medals for the third time in its history.
And with five starters returning, the Raiders appear to have enough talent to make a strong attempt at back-to-back titles.
Pepperdine University signee Nikki Lyons is gone, but 6-0 junior Brook Bauer is looking to follow in her footsteps. Bauer has also committed to Pepperdine and following a season in which she totaled 208 kills, she plans to lead the Raiders to another state title.
Senior libero Kaylie McHugh, a Tulane University commitment, and sophomore setter Derry Costigan were each named to the PrepVolleyball.com preseason All-America Watch List. McHugh had 332 digs and 40 aces last season and Costigan had 851 assists and 85 aces.
The front line is led by two more 6-foot juniors in Emma Dixon (169 kills, 62 blocks) and Allison Marble (129 kills, 26 blocks).
Aug. 21-22: Preseason tournaments
Aug. 24: Regular season begins
Sept. 11-12: East Coast Tourney
Sept. 18-19: Berkeley Prep Invitational; Chaminade Invitational
Sept. 25-26: Monarch Invitational
Oct. 9-10: Adidas/Florida Christian Invitational
Oct. 13-14: BCAA Big 8 Invitational
Oct. 16-17: Smoothie King Invitational
Oct. 19-23: Districts
Oct. 27-28: Regional quarterfinals
Oct. 31: Regional semifinals
Nov. 3: Regional finals
Nov. 7: State semifinals
Nov. 13-14: State championships
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS
OH Samantha Arenas, West Broward, 5-10, Sr.
LIB Kaylie McHugh, St. Thomas Aquinas, 5-2, Sr.
OH Brooke Bauer, St. Thomas Aquinas, 6-0, Jr.
MH Emma Dixon, St. Thomas Aquinas, 6-0, Jr.
S-H Carly Smitherman, Cooper City, 5-9, Sr.
LIB Sara Duque, Pine Crest, 5-4, Sr.
OH Caitlin Harvey, Pine Crest, 6-0, Sr.
S-OH Sarah Martin, Cardinal Gibbons, 6-2, Sr.
MH Daniella Molinari, Cardinal Gibbons, 6-2, Sr.
OH Bailey Pearlman, Cardinal Gibbons, 6-1, Sr.
S-OH Cassidy Bonitto, Pompano Beach, Sr.
MH Allison Marble, St. Thomas Aquinas, 6-0, Jr.
S Derry Costigan, St. Thomas Aquinas, 6-0, So.
S Kassie Akouri-Tejedor, Gibbons, 5-6, Sr.
MH Brianna Bruny, Pine Crest, 5-9, Sr.
NOTE: For team-by-team outlooks, go online to www.miamiherald.com/high-schools and click on the volleyball preview story.
TEAM-BY-TEAM OUTLOOKS –
CORAL SPRINGS (Coach Frank Bumbales, 22nd year, 366-256). Last year: 14-8 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: Emily Pellingra, 5-7, Sr.; OH Leslie Farnes, 5-10, Jr.; LIB Nicole Colon, 5-6, Jr.; MH Jalaya Norville, 5-9, So.; S Ashley Gallo, 5-7, So.; MH Kacie Thomas, Fr.
CYPRESS BAY (Coach Jennifer Meyer, 2nd year, 25-3). Last year: 25-3 (Regional finalist). Top players: MH Cassidy Fisher, 5-10, Sr.; RS Jordan Kron, 6-1, Jr.; LIB Antonia Banos, 5-5, Jr.; MH Marcelle Zacour, 6-0, Jr.; S Guste Janusauskaite, 5-8, Jr.; OH Aryana Fazelnia, 5-7, Jr.
FLANAGAN (Coach Jesse Ochoa, 2nd year, 15-8). Last year: 15-8 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OH Caytley Ray, Sr.; MH Jessica Gutierrez, Sr.; S Meaghyn DeValk, So.; RS Logan Bassoff, Sr.; MH Maria Escobar, Jr.
MONARCH (Coach Walt Drexl, 5th year at Mon, 17th overall, 263-176). Last year: 22-5 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: OH Kayla Schmitz, 5-9, Jr.; MH Kristin Colwell, 6-0, Jr.; S-RS Raquel Texeira, 5-9, Sr.; OH Katherine Arvelo, 5-6, Jr.; DS Maria Echevarri, 5-4, Sr.; S-RS Joelle Hilton, 5-7, Sr.
PIPER (Coach Sybill Johnson, 1st year). Last year: 3-12. Top players: S Mahogany Hughes, 5-11, Sr.; H Chelsea Kerson, 5-6, Sr.; DS-LIB Gabriella Leon, 5-6, Sr.
SOUTH PLANTATION (Coach Tania Lam, 5th year, 40-57). Last year: 5-12. Top players: LIB Lisa Santiago, 5-1, Sr.; MH Femi Funeus, 5-11, So.; S Emilly Weise, 5-11, Fr.; MH Jordyn Sanchez, 5-9, Sr.; RS Emily Magnuson, 5-9, Sr.; OH Joneisha West, 5-6, Sr.
COOPER CITY (Jill Smitherman, 3rd year at CC, 8th overall). Last year: 14-9. Top players: S-OH-MH Carolyn Smitherman, 5-9, Sr.; OH Zoe Hobson, 5-7, Sr.; DS Emma Trittin, 5-5, Jr.; OH Megan Hernandez, 5-6, So.; S-DS Erin Silverman, 5-3, Jr.; DS Ashley Lizzi, 5-2, Sr.
HOLLYWOOD HILLS (Coach Sheila Pimentel, 2nd year, 2-12-1). Last year: 2-12-1. Top players: MH Ashley Nau, Sr.; RS Courtney Nau, Sr.; LIB Brigitta Pakler, Sr.; OH Amber Dyke, Sr.; MH Maigen Petersen, Sr.; DS-OH Katelyn Paik, Sr.
NOVA (Coach Angela McBee, 2nd year, 15-8). Last year: 15-8 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: S-OH Maria Calderon, 5-6, Sr.; OH Maria Henderson, 5-11, Sr.
PLANTATION (Coach Robert Heon, 1st year). Top players: Natalie Zuniga, Jr.; Edwina Baltizar, Sr.; Moneyeke Martin, Jr.; Vanessa Maldonado, Sr.; Natalia Diggs, Fr.; Electra Duchemin, Jr.
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (Coach Lisa Zielinski, 28th year at STA, 31st overall, 727-150). Last year: 29-3 (State champions). Top players: OH Brook Bauer, 6-0, Jr.; LIB Kaylie McHugh, 5-2, Sr.; OH Allison Marble, 6-0, Jr.; MH Emma Dixon, 6-0, Jr.; S Derry Costigan, 6-0, So.
SOUTH BROWARD (Coach Leo Jimenez). Top players: OH Katherine Dudra, 5-10, Sr.; OH Alexis McCain, Jr.
BOYD ANDERSON (Coach Larry Brown, 2nd year, 1-12). Last year: 0-12. Top players: OH Kierra Peters, 5-6, Sr.
AMERICAN HERITAGE (Coach Lori Rembe, 12th year). Last year: 10-7. Top players: OH Lu Grinspan, Jr.; MH Jenna Amaro, 8th; MH Laura Perez, Jr.; LIB Isabel Acosta, Jr.; S Ahnie Jumper, Jr.
ARCHBISHOP MCCARTHY (Coach Karen Frank). Last year: 17-11. Top players: OH Lauren Bandera, 5-6, So.; MH Sahara Aqui, 5-9, Sr.; LIB Valentina Caicedo, 5-3, So.; S Sarah Wilensky, 5-7, Sr.; OH Victoria Bordreaux, 5-8, Fr.
CALVARY CHRISTIAN (Coach Hugo Jimenez, 1st year at CC, 7th overall). Last year: 19-6 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: MH Haley Batchelor, Sr.; OH Nicole Decker, Jr.; S Jessie Underwood, Jr.; LIB Marielle Diaz, Jr.; OH Maylin Bouffard, Fr.; OH Kaley Hendry, Jr.
CARDINAL GIBBONS (Coach Kathryn Reeber, 8th year, 151-38). Last year: 22-8 (Regional semifinalist). Top players: MH Daniella Molinari, 6-2, Sr.; S-OH Sarah Martin, 6-2, Sr.; OH Bailey Pearlman, 6-1, Sr.; S Kassie Akouri-Tejedor, 5-6, Sr.; LIB Aya Lechin, 5-7, Sr.; OH Jade Jeffrey, 6-1, Jr.
CHAMINADE-MADONNA (Coach Jason Johnson). Last year: 17-8. Top players: MH Angelique Sheerin, 6-0, Jr.; LIB Danielle Franzosa, 5-5, So.; OH Alexis Whittaker, 5-9, So.; OH Amanda Allende, 5-7, Fr.; S Carly Price, 5-8, So.
NSU UNIVERSITY SCHOOL (Coach Brooke Ryan, 4th year, 11-35). Last year: 6-17. Top players: LIB Katelyn Barclay, 5-2, Sr.; MH Selin Kilinc, 5-10, So.
HIGHLANDS CHRISTIAN (Coach Amber Ross). Last year: 16-9. Top players: OH Erin Allen, 6-0, So.; MH Gina Oliva, 5-10, Jr.; OH Rachel Dutra, 5-7, Sr.
SAGEMONT (Coach Shane Marcey, 6th year at Sage, 10th overall, 135-110). Last year: 19-10 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: OH Valeria Castro, 5-6, So.; MH-OH Brooklynne Villano, 5-7, Jr.; OH Zoe Fineberg, 5-8, Jr.; S-OH Carly Cohen, 5-8, So.; LIB Rebecca Bimon, 5-5, Sr.; S-OH Nikki Rodriguez, 5-4, Sr.
WESTMINSTER ACADEMY (Coach Lanae James, 2nd year). Last year: 9-14. Top players: S Jenna Boland, Jr.; OH Jamie Boros, So.; OH Gilli Kalb, Jr.; S Katie Ferraguti, Sr.; OH Glynnis Carlson, Jr.; OH Caroline Elgut, Jr.
HOLLYWOOD CHRISTIAN (Coach Joseph Hernandez, 3rd year). Last year: 14-12 (Regional quarterfinalist). Top players: OH Jada Small, Jr.; OH Shae Pierce, Jr.; OH Celeste Grimmett, Sr.; MH Emily Harrigan, Sr.; S Kaylen Clark, Jr.; OH-S Burgundy Pierce, 8th.