By Jeff Odom
Laker/Lutz News Correspondent
For a squad that has taken home a pair of district titles in its first two years, the word rebuilding is unfamiliar to the Steinbrenner girls tennis team.
The Warriors (8-1) lost their No. 2 Kaleigh Wagner and Taylor Brennan to graduation. However, the team adds a handful of new players and returns its No. 1 Grace Korta, who finished as a state semifinalist and was the All-Laker/All-Lutz News Player of the Year as a freshman.
Second-year coach Domenic Colangelo said the program is competitive across the board, and his team is buying into the necessary changes made after losing so many key players.
“I’ve really focused this year on bringing all the girls up, experience wise,” Colangelo said. “We’re trying to push them beyond what they thought they were possible of, and they’ve all reacted positively and have seen some great results.”
Korta adds that while the matches won’t get any easier, the family-like atmosphere around the team is enough to keep them in the hunt for victories.
“It’s amazing to be able to be No. 1 and support the team,” said Korta, a sophomore. “As a high school tennis player it’s mainly an individual sport because you’re out there by yourself, but having the team to come together and support one another it’s definitely a good experience.”
It will be a tougher road to the district crown, as the Warriors move into Class 4A-District 6 with Gaither, Freedom, Wharton and last season’s state champion Plant. Colangelo said the standards of success are set for the program, but knows the cards will have to fall in the team’s favor to claim the three-peat.
“Our goal is always going to be a district title,” Colangelo said. “But in the end, it’s all about the girls gaining experience and (the school) continuing to get recognized in the district and countywide that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
The fight that Colangelo sees in this team to get the big wins is something he said he’s never seen before.
“Every time girls have been out, the other girls have stepped up and saved the day,” Colangelo said. “We had a match against Tampa Prep that was rain delayed and was only halfway over and we were down. When we finished the match one week later, Erika Smitten our No. 3 and Kiernan O’Keefe our No. 4 both came from down sets and won their matches and we won the day. It was my Disney miracle. … That’s been the story throughout the season, and I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
Colangelo said even if the squad is denied its third consecutive district championship, the season will still be special to him.
“I have to say, out of all the years I’ve coached different sports, this squad is the squad that I’m most proud of,” Colangelo said. “I like to make a difference with the athletes that I coach and these girls have gelled, bonded and pretty much done whatever I’ve asked them to do and then some. If I had to retire today, I would say I had the best squad ever and that’s the one right now.”
Wharton hosts the 4A-6 tournament at Hunters Green Country Club starting on Monday, April 4 at 8 a.m.