By Jeff Odom
The Freedom High volleyball team has a new motto this season that is aimed at keeping its run of success going and developing younger players.
That fresh adage, according to interim coach Michelle Davis, is “One Team, One Dream.” But to the team, it’s much more than just a slogan on the back of a T-shirt.
“We’re going to incorporate co-practices this season to really work with our girls (to) have a one-team atmosphere between our junior varsity and varsity players,” said Davis, who is filling in at head coach this season for Kerry Short, who is out on maternity leave.
“What (assistant coach Jeff) Saxton and I have noticed with some of the junior varsity from last year was that some of them were not ready to move to the varsity level, because they did not have the talent and the skills to get there. But the best way to build a solid program is to make sure we have a strong junior varsity team, so we’re focused on that to have a feeder program, which is going to be very important moving forward.”
The Patriots are coming off of three straight winning seasons, which included a runner-up finish in Class 7A-District 9 last year.
However, if Freedom continues its run of success, the squad will have to do it without 2013 graduate Jasmyn Perry (422 kills) and senior outside hitter Ashley Wilson (212 kills, 190 digs), who are no longer with the team.
While the team will feel the impact left by their voids both on and off the court, Davis said, it’s best for her players to treat it like a work environment where people come and go.
“You’ve got to move forward and that’s the sign of a true champion,” she said. “These girls have really picked that up. At the beginning of the season, they acknowledged there was a hole and we weren’t sure with (junior varsity) girls stepping up or incoming freshmen, what we were going to have. And we’ve been very fortunate that everyone’s been healthy and everyone has stayed focused and strong and they are one collective unit that wants success for the program.”
One of the ways her team has worked to fill that hole is through honing their skills and staying in shape through outdoor beach volleyball.
“Running in the sand, playing in the sand and playing in the heat has made their conditioning level already really high coming into this year,” Davis said. “And there’s no hiding a girl like you can indoors if you have a girl who’s taller and can be put onto the back row and you can sub a girl out, there’s none of that happening in beach. So, it’s made the girls have to work a little bit harder to become more well-rounded.”
One of the teams that Freedom is trying to learn from is none other than cross-town rival Steinbrenner, which has won four district championships in as many years.
Davis was originally hired as the Warriors’ junior varsity coach, but opted to come to Freedom when a spot opened because it was closer to her New Tampa home. After seeing how strong Steinbrenner’s junior varsity program was, the idea of meshing practices became a no-brainer and, so far, it has led to many of her players stepping up as leaders. That includes setter Kelly Schaller (154 digs, 80 assists) and defensive specialist Gabbi Jacobs, who had 105 digs and 27 aces last season, according to statistics as entered by coaches to MaxPreps.com.
Jacobs said the early guidance of Davis has helped the program tremendously in just the first few days of organized practice, and added that she feels like the team has a good chance to make even bigger strides this season to possibly steal the district championship.
“We’ve all worked really well together, and we all have really strong players,” Jacobs said. “Even though we’re just now at the beginning, we’re all looking really good together.”
Davis said she’s expecting a lot out of Jacobs, a senior, and believes her speed is going to be great for her back row. However there is one other player that has caught her eye, and that’s Jacobs’ sister, Carlee, a sophomore outside hitter.
“With those girls running the back row, I have a lot of confidence in our defense, and I don’t see our back row letting anything get by,” Davis said.
Still, even with a surplus of young talent and blossoming leaders, Davis said she knows it’s going to be a difficult schedule at times. But that won’t stop her from making any bold predictions.
“This program has the opportunity to be fantastic, because these girls are working so hard,” Davis said. “I honestly don’t think they’re going to be stopped this year. I know that we have Sickles and Steinbrenner and they may see us as an underdog, but I have the utmost confidence in this team. I think we will win the district championship.”
Freedom opens the regular season at home against Hillsborough on Aug. 27 at 7 p.m.