It was a thrilling surprise.
The Land O’ Lakes Gators volleyball team was supposed to be rebuilding this season, having lost six of its top seven players from a year ago when it had its best record in program history and its second-straight conference championship.
Instead, this year’s Gators went 24-8, and had some impressive accomplishments. The team won its first district title in 33 years, its first regional title since 1987 and appeared in the Class 6A state tournament.
Land O’ Lakes was topped 3-0 (25-17, 25-14, 25-19) at New Smyrna Beach, the third-ranked team in the state, on Nov. 5 in a state semifinal game.
“Yeah, (this season) kind of threw me, but it also surprised and thrilled me,” seventh-season coach Ike Klauka said. “It was a fun run we had there at the end of the year and to make it all the way to states, so the bar will be set high next year.
“Not just by me, but by the players, too,” he said.
So the Gators had a year that no one saw coming, except for maybe the players. Klauka said he was surprised by how fast the team improved and stepped up to go on a remarkable postseason run. It was one that included finally getting past Mitchell, a team that always seemed to keep the district title away from the Gators, as well as knock them out of the region tournament.
“We’ve got plenty of second-place district trophies, so, yeah, it was great to finally get a district title one,” Klauka said. “I told the players that we’d hang a district title banner (in the gym), but then they asked me (on Nov. 2 when the team swept Mitchell in the region final match) if we were going to hang a regional title one, too.
“I said we’ll look into it, because they earned it.”
The players certainly did, especially when Klauka brought in Jim Heidelberg to teach the new players stepping into a starting role the art of setting up the ball on the net.
“Once (Jim) was able to do that, I was able to focus on other stuff, as he has the brains for setting (the ball),” the coach added.
The move paid off, and it gave the Gators three players with more than 200 kills: Izabella Horruitiner (275), Carissa Mixon (216) and Sophie Puhala (206).
However, it was seniors Vanessa Campoe and Mariah Rosado who made the most of the setting lessons. Campoe and Rosado posted 489 and 322 assists, respectively, while junior Sydney Rolfe led the team with 339 digs.
Looking ahead to next season, the Gators expect to be in a good position to repeat their success from this year, especially since the team returns five starters and some freshmen that made an immediate impact this season.
Just consider that another surprise in a season that was filled with them.
“The bar will be set high, and the players already want to face the best of the best next year,” Klauka said. “I told them they can have a hand in making our schedule because they want to be ready for when they play the best teams out there.
“This year, they bought in and had an incredible season, one that was a lot of fun and one we won’t forget.”
Published November 09, 2022