New players and a new head coach meant that Sunlake High School had to prepare for some big changes heading into the 2013 volleyball season. But few probably expected one of those changes would be to become accustomed to winning.
And winning a lot.
With just three games remaining — including Tuesday’s late matchup with district-leading Fivay — the Sunlake Seahawks are 12-5, producing the first winning season in school history, and chalking up the most wins in school history as well.
Ask the players, and they’ll point toward first-year coach Deann Newton as the reason for the change. But ask Newton, and she points right back at the players.
“The whole team has really come together,” Newton said. “They like each other, which is good anytime. But these girls really get along well, and that has really helped with our team chemistry.”
Newton joined the Seahawks after a 10-year break from coaching. Her most recent job before that was with Mitchell High School, where she took a 17-9 team into the playoffs, knocked off a heavily favored Lakeland High School in the first round, and then lost to eventual state champion Plant High School in four sets in the regional semifinals.
She returned to a sport that has changed a lot (primarily, the implementation of rally scoring, which allows points to be scored on every serve). The higher point totals means a lot more scoreboard watching for many, but not for the Seahawks.
“I tell my girls all the time not to even look at the scoreboard,” Newton said. “It doesn’t even matter. We have to play every point like it’s the last point of the game. Every ball, every serve, we have to focus on each one at a time.”
The Seahawks have developed a strong core of players in recent seasons, but got some extra help this year with four transfers, including Sunlake’s new team captain, Malika Saffore. The Bishop McLaughlin High School transplant is one of the leaders in digs with 157, and has more than 400 assists.
Other transfers this year included junior outside hitter Shelby Stratton from Land O’ Lakes Christian High School, senior outside hitter Maeghan O’Fray from Ocala, and junior outside hitter Sara Nafziger, who moved to Florida last summer.
Saffore, who actually played on Sunlake’s varsity team as a freshman, says she returned to a much different Seahawks team for her senior year.
“There is a much more excitement than I ever remember on this team before,” Saffore said. This stems from the need for everyone to stay focused and contribute, because this is a team that doesn’t operate with star players.
“I’m a senior, and I’m the captain, but I’m really just one of 12 girls on this team,” Saffore said. “We always work as a team, and we always motivate each other as a team. And this year, we have so much talent. We keep looking at that talent, and are getting a hint of what we can accomplish.”
The season is almost over, and while Sunlake has been successful on the court, they know that once the playoffs begins, everyone starts back at the beginning. And a loss there means the season is over. But just as Newton directs her players to focus on just one point at a time, she asks them to focus on the games the same way.
“We don’t think one game is more important than another because every game is important,” Saffore said. “Each game has to turn into a win, and we can’t take anything for granted.”
Crowds have started to grow for Sunlake home games as more and more people start to hear about the success the Seahawks are having on the court. But Newton wants to see the bleachers filled, because the energy of the crowd fuels her girls even more.
“That’s probably one of the most disappointing things I’ve noticed since coming back, it’s the size of crowds for volleyball games at our school and other schools,” Newton said. “I’m 36, I’m not that old, but when I played, we packed the gym.”
People will really start to come as the team improves, and for now, the Seahawks are getting tremendous support from its core of parents and students who make it a point to be at every Sunlake volleyball game.
And they shouldn’t miss a thing, because it only gets more exciting from here.
“Our district is so tight right now,” Newton said. “The top five teams are all strong teams, and anyone can knock anybody off. We’re going to have to play our game the whole time to really make it through to the finals. That’s for sure.”