By Kyle LoJacono
The Wharton volleyball team’s most successful season in recent memory ended Oct. 30 at Palm Harbor in the Class 8A regional quarterfinals 25-21, 25-20, 27-25.
The Wildcats (25-3) were tantalizingly close to winning their first playoff match in the program’s 15-year history, but fell to 0-8 all-time in regionals.
Just making it the postseason for the first time since 2006 is quite a turnaround for a program that was 6-13 in 2009 and 9-8 in 2010. The 2012 squad also set the program record for wins in a season.
“It’s been really exciting,” said Wharton senior setter Ashton Stocker. “I think the most important thing is that we had a very successful season and helped make the program better. It’s tough to lose, but I think if you look at the season as a whole it was really a win for us.”
Stocker finished with a team-high 20 digs and 20 assists against the Hurricanes (16-12) in her first career playoff match.
“I think we all tried to play it like it was just another game in the regular season so that we didn’t get psyched out,” Stocker said. “It was exciting, and it was cool to play in my first regional game.”
The Wildcats’ usually fast offense was a bit off, which Palm Harbor capitalized on.
“I don’t think they did anything we didn’t expect,” said Wharton coach Eric Barber. “They run a very fast offense, but it’s not something we haven’t seen before. They were proficient in doing exactly what we didn’t do, which is turn defense into offense, so that’s one thing going into next season we’ll look to get better at.”
Wildcats did have 10 blocks against the Hurricanes, eight from freshman middle hitter Lindsey Schaible, but speed of setting up their wall was not where it normally is.
“Defensively we didn’t do the things we needed to do,” Barber said. “Our block was a little bit slow to get to hit, and that’s one of our strong points, so that’s what’s frustrating about this particular loss is losing with your strength. We didn’t block like we normally do, and they did a great job of finding the open spots.”
Wharton started slowly in the first set, falling into a 7-3 hole the New Tampa squad couldn’t climb out of.
The Wildcats flipped the script in the second, jumping out to a 7-4 lead thanks to a pair of Schaible blocks. Senior outside hitter Caci Andreychuk put down a kill to pull her squad ahead 20-19, but the ‘Canes stormed back to take the final six points.
The third was hotly contested. Wharton looked like it would claim the set when Palm Harbor hit a pair of attack attempts out to go ahead 21-19, but the host fought back to take a 24-23 lead.
Andreychuk gave her squad life with her 16th kill of the match to tie the set, but she was called on a carry on an attack attempt on the next point.
Palm Harbor took the match when miscommunication between the Wildcats let the winning point find the floor.
Andreychuk finished with 16 kills and 13 digs. Freshman libero Chanelle Hargreaves had eight digs, while junior defensive specialist Kylie Paul had 15.
Barber gave credit to his seniors — defensive specialist Caitlin Lievre (four digs), rightside hitter Kathryn Kastner (three digs), Andreychuk and Stocker — for the program’s growth.
“They put us on the map,” Barber said. “This last couple of years has been something that’s really made this program stand out, and it’s their hard work.”
Stocker is excited about what the underclassmen can do in the future.
“I think they’ll pick things right up next year and continue to do well,” Stocker said. “I’ll just keep cheering them on. They’ll be great.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
Freedom falls at Clearwater
The Freedom volleyball team lost at Clearwater Oct. 31 in the Class 7A regional semifinals 25-13, 25-22, 26-24. The Patriots (16-12), who were also beaten by the Tornadoes last season, will have to wait at least another year for the program’s first playoff win.