Freedom advances as runner-up
By Kyle LoJacono
It was a different district, different opponents, but in the end the Steinbrenner volleyball team was still the squad holding a championship trophy on Oct. 27.
The Warriors (23-4) claimed their third consecutive district crown by defeating Freedom 25-13, 25-19, 25-19 in the Class 7A-District 9 finals. Steinbrenner coach Jennifer Graham said this squad is different from the previous two years.
“I think we’re calm,” Graham said. “Last year we were still so new, same with the year before. This year we know we belong in the final four. We just have to play well to get there.”
Warrior senior libero Cary Anne Bame added, “Our confidence level is 10 times higher. Even last year when we were very confident — this is a different level.”
The win not only gives the third-year program a home match in the regional quarterfinals, but also extends Steinbrenner’s record against district opponents to 26-0.
The Warriors jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the first set thanks to serving that made it difficult for the Patriots (19-8) to pass the ball.
“That’s something we focus on in practice is effective serving and serving to certain spots,” Bame said. “That’s what we did tonight and that’s how we win.”
Freedom began to control the serves late in the first set and managed to take a two-point lead five times in the second set. Patriot coach Kerry Short said the goal was to slow down Steinbrenner’s serving game to give her hitters a chance at the net.
“If the kids could just somewhat control their serves to keep it where another player can get their hands on it then we’re in the ball game,” Short said.
The Warriors took a 15-14 lead in the second set off a kill by Rachel Mathison. They would not trail again in the match.
Graham said she knew it wasn’t going to be easy playing Freedom (19-8). The Patriots were the only 7A-9 team to force four sets against Steinbrenner this season and only the second district opponent that has ever taken a set from the Warriors.
“When they won that one from us early in the year it was just like that,” Graham said. “I said to them do you remember this because it’s déjà vu right here. They took it in the regular season, but we said it’s not happening tonight.”
Graham said she was pleased with the way her players put full effort into going after every ball regardless of the score.
“We only had two or three free balls all night and that is huge for us,” Graham said. “We’ve worked on that from Day 1. Attack every ball no matter where it’s at.”
Steinbrenner’s frontline was led by junior middle hitter Madison Seuzeneau, who had a career-high 15 kills against Freedom.
“I didn’t realize I had 15, but to have that many in a very important match for us is really special,” Seuzeneau said. “I knew I had to play my best. They put up a good block for me, but I was able to hit around their wall and find the open spots.”
Senior Miranda Powell recorded nine kills and four aces, while freshman Lauren Heldt and junior Baylee Hooker added four kills. Sophomore setter Casey McLean had 32 assists.
Hooker also posted four blocks against Freedom, including two on back-to-back kill attempts in the first set.
“All of us are stepping up in the frontline,” Hooker said. “We’ve been getting good blocks against good hitters, especially against their No. 2 (Jasmyn Perry).”
Perry, a junior transfer from Tampa Bay Tech, did post a team-high nine kills, while sophomore Hannah Kaczmarek added seven to the Patriot attack. Sophomore setter Kelly Schaller contributed 20 assists and two kills.
Freedom wanted to win its first district title but was not too disappointed with making the postseason in back-to-back years — only the second playoff appearance in program history.
“We had a great season and we thought from the start we would be able to advance,” Short said. “We have to look at it like it’s experience for the future. We’re just excited about what the program can be.”
Steinbrenner defeated tournament host Gaither 25-20, 25-15, 25-10 in the semifinals on Oct. 25. The Warrior frontline attack was led by a trio of players with at least 10 kills. Powell and Seuzeneau each had 11 kills, while Mathison added 10. McLean posted 41 assists, and Bame recorded 11 digs.
Freedom defeated Wiregrass Ranch 25-13, 22-25, 25-15, 25-20 in the other semifinal.
Kaczmarek led the way with 20 kills, while Perry added 14 kills and 13 digs. Freedom also got six kills and 38 assists from Schaller and 17 digs from Kayla Ireland.
Grace Olsen had nine kills and 18 digs for the Bulls.
Next up for Freedom is a trip to play Clearwater in the regional quarterfinals, while Steinbrenner hosts Seminole. Both matches are on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.
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