By Kyle LoJacono
District championships and the Steinbrenner volleyball team have been synonymous since the school opened in 2009.
In fact, the Warriors (17-8) have yet to experience a season that didn’t include a district title after claiming the 7A-9 crown Oct. 25 by sweeping Freedom 25-23, 25-22, 25-21.
“I was trying to tell myself and the team was all saying don’t get too cocky,” said senior libero Natalia Campos. “We also focused a lot on closing things out because we’ve been going through a little rougher patch the last four or five games. We wanted to close this out in three and show that we still got it.”
Steinbrenner’s run to its fourth district crown including extending its all-time record against league teams to 32-0, but the Patriots (16-11) pushed the Warriors like never before for the 2012 title.
“I’m very proud of our girls,” said fifth-year Freedom coach Kerry Short. “They played great. We were so close, and we were in there neck and neck with them. To just lose each game by a few points is a heartbreaker. I told them to be proud of the way they played.”
No team had been able to score 20 points in a set against the Warriors in a district final the last three years. The Patriots did so in every set this season.
“It was actually the most fun of them throughout the last few years because of how close it was,” said senior outside hitter Madison Seuzeneau, a four-year varsity player.
Steinbrenner brought a quicker offense to the finals, which they just put in the day before.
“During practice coach pulled me and Rachel (Mathison) aside and just took reps and reps and reps of the faster offense,” said Seuzeneau, who finished with a team-high 12 kills. “It definitely worked in our favor.”
The Warriors appeared a bit unsure of the new attack in the first set. Six of the 14 kills came from middle hitters instead of the outsides.
“You could tell we were a little nervous about that to start, but once we got by that we had so much fun with it,” said Mathison, who had nine kills. “We took off. … The block doesn’t have time to get over to the sides, so we can put the ball down easier.”
Seuzeneau and Mathison started rolling in the second set, which allowed sophomore setter Brooke Royals (34 assists) to spread the ball to even more players. Sophomore rightside hitter Avery Bradshaw had 11 kills, while sophomore middle hitter Lauren Heldt had six.
“We kept shooting it over to the outside, so the blocks were leaning to that side,” said first-year Steinbrenner coach Laura Stegenga. “We needed to spread out our offense in order to keep the block wondering where the ball was going to go. … I have good hitters all the way around that can play multiple positions, so I wanted to use that to the maximum ability.”
The Warriors jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the third and stretched it to 12-7 before Freedom made a final push to take a set. The Patriots ran off a 7-1 run to go ahead 14-13.
The squads went back and forth until Seuzeneau’s service rotation came around. She tied the set with her 12th kill of the match and then recorded two aces on her serve to help Steinbrenner take a 23-20 lead.
Mathison ended the match shortly after with a kill from the right side.
“The swing before that I was really pumped and wanted it to go down, so the next one I was determined to put the ball down and end it,” said Mathison, a junior.
Campos ended with 14 digs. Junior defensive specialist Casey McLean had four aces.
Freedom was led offensively by senior outside hitter Jasmyn Perry, who totaled 25 kills while adding 10 digs. Junior outside hitter Ashley Wilson added 11 digs, 10 kills and four aces. Junior setter Kelly Schaller had 33 assists and seven digs
Stegenga said the district championship is nice, but they have bigger goals.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Stegenga said. “It’s just going to get bigger and faster. We need to get prepared for it and we need to practice really, really hard because nothing comes easy at all from this point on.”
The Patriots will have to wait for their first district title in the program’s 10-year history, but Short said she won’t let her players hang their heads.
“Unfortunately we fell a little short tonight,” Short said. “Steinbrenner is a great team, we wish them luck and hopefully we’ll meet them again down the road.”
The Warriors swept Chamberlain 25-17, 25-14, 25-11 Oct. 23 to reach the finals. Bradshaw had a team-high 14 kills. Seuzeneau totaled 10 kills, five digs and five aces. Mathison had eight kills and five digs, Heldt had seven kills and Royals added five kills with 40 assist.
The Patriots defeated Wiregrass Ranch 25-16, 28-26, 21-25, 25-17 in the other semifinal. The Bulls (17-6) won the first two matches with Freedom this season, one in the regular season district meeting and the other in the Harvest Tournament at Wharton.
Perry had a team-high 21 kills and 12 digs. Wilson put down nine kills with 10 digs. Schaller totaled 32 assists, 11 digs, five kills and four aces. Sophomore Hannah Skendziel racked up five blocks, while senior middle hitter Ashle Thompson had four.
Wiregrass Ranch junior outside hitter Grace Olsen led her squad with 16 kills.
Steinbrenner hosts St. Petersburg in the regional quarterfinals Oct. 31, while Freedom travels to Clearwater. Both matches start at 7 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker