By Kyle LoJacono
The Steinbrenner volleyball team has only known district championships during the program’s first two seasons.
The Warriors won the Class 4A-District 9 crowns in 2009 and 2010 with a 14-0 record against district opponents. Now Steinbrenner moves into 7A-9 with new teams, but similar expectations.
“There is a lot of pressure,” said senior libero Cary Anne Bame. “The last two years we’ve had that excuse that we’re a new team. Now there’s an expectation for us. So there’s pressure, but we want that pressure because it means people expect us to win.”
If the Warriors, who finished 18-10 in 2010, are to make it three district titles in as many years, they will have to do it with a different cast of characters. The squad lost six seniors to graduation, including two of its top-three kills producers and setter Erin McMurtry, the All-Laker/All-Lutz News Volleyball Player of the Year.
Despite those losses, Warriors coach Jennifer Graham said the 2011 squad may be even better.
“This year we have a young team at a lot of positions, so a lot of people look at that as a rebuilding year,” Graham said. “I don’t see it like that. We have a really strong and fast offensive team. We’re quick defensively, and we have smart players. I don’t think we’ve skipped a beat.”
Sophomore Casey McLean steps in at setter. She has played for some time with several of the Warriors hitters, including sophomore outside hitter Rachel Mathison.
“Casey has been playing with Rachel and some of the other hitters for a while and that relationship shows,” Graham said. “Casey is our quarterback. Not everyone has the talent to run an offense.”
McLean said her time on varsity last year gave her confidence and also let her learn from McMurtry.
“She had to change positions from right side hitter and for her to take on so much pressure made me really look up to her,” McLean said of McMurtry. “She introduced me to new techniques.”
One of the few senior frontline players is Miranda Powell. The outside and right side hitter posted 86 kills, 38 aces and nine blocks in 2010 and said she is “excited to be a bigger part of the team this year.”
The Warriors may be young, but have a lot of depth. Graham said they are two or three players deep at every position.
“It’s very competitive because everyone is fighting to prove that they deserve to play,” Powell said. “It’s making us play harder. Anyone can step up and take charge.”
Steinbrenner will likely need that depth to get through matches in its tougher district, which includes Chamberlain, Freedom, Gaither and Wiregrass Ranch. Freedom made the playoffs last year as a district runner-up, while Gaither won a district title in 2009.
“I told a lot of the parents to expect to be at matches until 10:30 because it may go five (sets),” Graham said. “But we want that and we’ve got that. It’s going to prepare us for the end of the season. We’re in a lot of big tournaments too and that’s going to get us farther this year because tough teams won’t shock us.”
Bame added, “We’re expecting longer matches, so we’ve been really working on our conditioning every day. We’re expecting to go to five, so we want to be able to play with anyone all night because that’s what it’s going to take in this district.”
Those tough matches may prepare Steinbrenner for the playoffs come November. Two years ago the Warriors were knocked out in the first round by Lakewood in five sets. In 2010 they won a four-set match at home against Palmetto in the regional quarterfinals, but lost their next match at Braden River 25-23, 25-15, 25-21.
“I’ll never forget the feeling after we lost to Braden River,” Bame said. “It was a long drive all the way home because we all knew we could have beaten them. Feeling the loss, it’s so much motivation for me. It’s that feeling, it makes me cringe. I don’t want to feel that again.”
McLean said they will use that disappointment as fuel.
“Last year it was sweet 16, and I think this year we can go even farther,” McLean said.
Steinbrenner will host its first match of the season on Thursday, Sept. 1 against perennial powerhouse Plant after the junior varsity match. Graham is challenging the community to come out and support the Warriors. The match will start around 7 p.m. and the first 100 people receive a free T-shirt.
“I won’t say what it’ll say yet, but it will be something special,” Graham said.
—All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches.