By Kyle LoJacono
The Steinbrenner volleyball team took a big step toward securing the No. 1 seed in the Class 7A-District 9 tournament with a 25-23, 25-19, 25-16 victory at home against Freedom Sept. 20.
The win not only moves the Warriors (8-3) to 2-0 in 7A-9 play, but also improves their all-time record against district opponents to 28-0. They also remain perfect in their five matches against the Patriots (8-4), who they beat for the district title last year.
The Warriors needed only three sets to defeat Freedom, but it was far from an easy night for the home team. The Patriots led for 32 of the 44 plays in the second set, but the Warriors were able to pull out critical points when it mattered most.
“They were riding with us the whole time,” said Warriors junior outside hitter Rachel Mathison. “We had to really battle back a couple of times. … We’re so determined to win.”
Steinbrenner coach Laura Stegenga said the focus in recent practice has been on the frontline attack. The Warriors were averaging 20.2 kills per match entering the contest, but racked up 42 against Freedom. Mathison had a team-high 16, sophomore Avery Bradshaw posted seven and senior Madison Seuzeneau added five.
“Early we focused on backline defense and serve receive, and that’s been our strength,” Stegenga said. “We went back in the gym and had a purpose with our hitting, and I thought every time my hitters went up to swing tonight there had a purpose. That made their consistency so much stronger than what it’s been in the past.”
Steinbrenner sophomore middle hitter Lauren Heldt said the increase in the offense is a result of the backline and setters.
“The passing was perfect,” said Heldt, who had five kills. “(The ball) is where it needs to be, and it makes it easy for the hitters.”
Stegenga said another focus was blocking, especially on Patriots senior outside hitter Jasmyn Perry.
“We knew that Jasmyn was their key play and key hitter, so yesterday at practice we adjusted to her,” Stegenga said. “By having that double block shading in toward Jasmyn we were able to execute.”
Perry had 14 kills, but she was greatly limited in her attack by the 6-foot-1 Heldt.
“We’ve all worked really hard at blocking in practice, and we knew she was their big hitter,” Heldt said. “We knew we had to stay on her. I had Avery (Bradshaw) and Madison Powell on my right side. We just closed every time, and it was fantastic.”
Mathison said she knew Heldt would be able to hold Perry in check.
“We told her not to think about it,” Mathison said. “Just get her feet there and block. She doesn’t even have to jump to get over the net. She’s a brick house right there.”
Her team has yet to drop a set against a Hillsborough County opponent this year, but Stegenga said she wants to see her squad jump on opponents quicker.
“We always seem to have a slow start, and then all of a sudden we think we’ve got to play,” Stegenga said. “I’m going to come up with drills to start executing plays from the beginning. … I have a lot of athletic, good volleyball players who can play multiple positions. I might start experimenting with them to see how to maximize their potential.”
Freedom coach Kerry Short said she liked the fight from her team.
“We knew coming in and playing at Steinbrenner was going to be tough,” Short said. “They had the home court advantage, but I think we got a good look at what’s to come in the district finals.”
Warriors junior setter Casey McLean had 19 assists, while sophomore setter Brooke Royals recorded 17. Senior libero Natalia Campos posted 20 digs, Seuzeneau recorded 11 and Mathison had eight.
Steinbrenner played at Alonso, while Freedom hosted 7A-9 rival Chamberlain Sept. 24, but results were not available by press time. The Warriors travel to Wharton Oct. 1, the same night the Patriots host Alonso. All matches start at 7:30 p.m.