Each of the past three seasons, the St. Thomas Aquinas girls’ volleyball team has reached states and fallen to the eventual champion in either the semifinal or final.
This year, the Raiders look to change their fate and be the ones celebrating by hoisting the championship trophy instead of the ones left to observe what could have been.
Aquinas’ charge for a third state title (1995, 2004) begins with a state semifinal match at 3 p.m. on Friday at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee against Lutz Steinbrenner — also a semifinalist a year ago. A win would put St. Thomas in the Class 7A title game against the winner between Bradenton Lakewood Ranch and Winter Springs.
Is there reason to believe the Raiders can flip the recent script — one that has become much too familiar for their liking — this time around?
According to coach Lisa Zielinski, the team is as hot as it’s been all season at the right time, and has also recovered from early-season injuries.
“I’m really happy with how we’ve progressed this season,” said Zielinski, who coached the previous two state championship-winning teams. “I really do feel like we’re playing our best volleyball right now, which is a great feeling going into the state tournament. It hasn’t always been that way in years before.”
Aquinas (26-4) has won 12 consecutive matches and has not dropped a game since the BCAA final against Pompano Beach. The Raiders won in straight sets in all three regional matches, including a 25-11, 25-15, 25-22 victory in the regional final against Delray Beach Atlantic, which had lost just four matches heading in.
Senior outside hitter Nikki Lyons was exceptional in the win with 11 timely kills. Every time Atlantic would rally to get back into a game, her long blonde ponytail and pink headband would swoop in for a kill to take back momentum. She even had the regional-clinching kill in her final home game as a Raider.
Lyons, who has been through the past three state eliminations and covets the opportunity to go out on top, is one of two seniors that gets significant playing time along with Providence-bound Kara Mason.
Lyons has watched seniors before her lead and says she takes bits and pieces from all of them to find her leadership niche. She’s optimistic that this year’s team is capable of bringing home the title.
“This year I think we’re working a lot harder, and we’re really focused,” said Lyons, who leads the team with 240 kills on the season and is a Pepperdine commit. “We’re playing more like a team. Everyone is just pushing, pushing, pushing.”
Said Zielinski of Lyons: “She’s been playing for me for four years, so she kind of has been around the block. She knows what she has to do. She’s been a really big help for the team as far as setting the standard.”
Sophomore Brooke Bauer is second on the team with 183 kills. She had a match-high 13 — out of 21 swings — in the win against Atlantic and did not record a single error.
Also instrumental for Aquinas’ success will be sophomore Allison Marble at middle blocker. She’s naturally an outside hitter, but with so much depth at the position, Zielinski moved her to middle and it’s been the perfect fit.
“It was like that one missing puzzle piece to us being that solid team,” Zielinski said. “Her playing middle for us has made us multi-dimensional and given us many offensive options.
The Raiders leave for Kissimmee on Thursday after a morning practice and will check out the facility and catch some matches in the afternoon to get a feel for the atmosphere before Friday.