By Jeff Odom
Capturing four district crowns in as many years and coming off the best season in program history, the Steinbrenner High School volleyball team has been nothing short of dominant since the school was opened in 2009.
The Warriors made their first trip to the Class 7A region finals last year before falling to eventual state champion Venice in three straight sets. And while another district championship would be special, the players want more this time around, said second-year coach Laura Stegenga. Like winning a state title.
“I have the athletes; we’ve just got to put the work in,” said Stegenga, who took over the team for Jennifer Graham in May 2012. “The biggest thing I want my players to focus on is not just going for championships, but practice and what happens there. That’s how you achieve those kind of goals, and I think it’s a goal that we can achieve if we work hard.”
That road to states may be a little tougher for Steinbrenner this season because of the addition of one extra game against each district opponent and Sickles entering Class 7A-District 8.
The Gryphons are coming off three straight championship campaigns of their own in which they most recently defeated Strawberry Crest to win Class 6A-District 11 last year.
Adding Sickles into the mix of league opponents will make competition more interesting, Stegenga said, but she insists it’s nothing the team can’t handle.
“I know (my seniors) are really driven, and I know that they’re extremely good leaders,” she said. “It’s really neat to have them a part of it and also setting the tone for the younger ones.”
Any competition that challenges the team will only make them better, Stegenga said, even if it results in a loss.
“It’s OK in my eyes,” she said. “By adding Sickles, I think it’s a positive thing for us, because it’s just more competition.”
Another potential concern the Warriors face this season is replacing the leadership of the team’s three graduated seniors. They include libero Natalia Campos and starting outside hitter Madison Seuzeneau.
Seuzeneau, who now plays at Spring Hill College in Alabama, was second on the team in kills last season with 255, second in aces with 40, and third in blocks with 14, based on stats entered by coaches to MaxPreps.com.
Campos, now at Valdosta State University in Georgia, had a team-high 377 digs to go along with 39 aces and 15 assists.
Filling the void left behind by their departure are senior outside hitter Rachel Matheson (257 kills, 169 digs, 30 aces and 11 blocks), setter Casey McLean (199 assists, 158 digs and 66 aces) and opposite hitter Maddy Powell (seven kills).
The opportunity to step into a leadership position is something the trio relishes, Stegenga said.
“They’ve definitely made their comments about their seniority over things,” she said, with a laugh. “They’re anxious, excited, and every emotion that they’re feeling is probably very positive for our program. They don’t want anything to change, even though we lose players every year. They don’t want what has been happening the past few years to change, so I feel like they’re willing and ready, and they have the desire to go in and take those roles, all three of them.”
Steinbrenner hosts Armwood to open the regular season on Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m.