Teams to watch
Mitchell: Following the Mustangs’ trip to the Class 6A region finals where they lost to perennial state contender Venice, the team lost many seniors, including the one of the county’s top players. However, coach Keith Paulk, who has lost just 76 games in nine seasons, returns experienced talent and leadership, many of which play the middle of the net and are just juniors. Expect Mitchell to defend its district title.
Bishop McLaughlin: The Hurricanes reached the region semifinals last season, where they met district foe Tampa Prep, which knocked them out. Bishop will compete again against the Terrapins, but do so with one of the area’s top hitting Division I recruits. Throw in a libero that could also be a player of the year candidate, and the Hurricanes have expectations on having their best season ever.
Anclote: The Sharks are under a new coach, Patricia Adams, but she inherits talent and experience. Following a region semifinal berth, Adams and company will be eyeing a return to the postseason, if not a chance at the Class 5A-District 8 title.
Fivay: The Falcons have been one of the county’s top teams the past few years, including reaching the region finals the past two seasons. Coach Nikki Pollock returns for her second season after losing many talented and important senior starters, including power-hitting twin sisters. Fivay has done a good job of bringing in new talented players and will need to do so this season if expected to defend its district title.
Sunlake: The Seahawks were the surprise team last season that fell just short of reaching the program’s first region tourney. At 5-2 in 5A-8, their only district losses came at the hands of Fivay and Anclote, while both those teams lost more experience than Sunlake did this offseason. If there was a season for the Seahawks to breakthrough, its this one.
Players to watch
OH - Alyssa Mathis, Sr., Bishop McLaughlin: One of the area’s best hitters, the San Diego State commit led the Hurricanes to the 3A region semifinals with 396 kills and 100 blocks.
L - Casey McColl, Sr., Bishop McLaughlin: Should be one of the area’s top liberos to complement Mathis and power the Hurricanes.
MH - Kayla Widera, Jr., Mitchell: Returns to the region finalist Mustangs after having 188 kills and a team-high 71 blocks in 2013.
MH - Bailey Sassatelli, Jr., Mitchell: Will also be a big hitter for the Mustangs after having 134 kills and 65 blocks last season.
OH - Sarah Sprague, Sr., Sunlake: Led the surprising Seahawks with 256 kills and should do so once again.
MH - Marissa Niedermeyer, Sr., Anclote : Returns as the top player after recording 259 kills, 38 aces and 64 blocks last season.
S- Jordyn Mattos, Sr., Fivay: One of the top returning Falcons had 54 kills, 67 aces and 128 digs in 2013.
OH - Amber Lake, Jr., Fivay: Will need to step up big at the net after 166 kills last season.
OH - Gigi Chiaramonte, Fr., Academy at the Lakes: Will be a force on the net for the Wildcats after 43 kills as an eighth grader.
MH - Amanda Smith, Jr., Gulf: The Buccaneers all-around best player brings leadership to a team looking improve on a 1-17 season.
L - Kim Johnson, Jr., Hudson: This two-year starter had an impressive 517 digs last season and has the experience to pace the Cobras in a tough 4A-6.
OH - Amber Sigismondi, Jr., Ridgewood: Led the 7-15 Rams with 207 kills.
OH - Kathryn Sarber, So., Pasco: The top returner (29 kills) after the team lost eight seniors from last season.
MH - Kelsey Bridges, Sr., Land O’ Lakes: Will step with leadership and play for the Gators to stay in contention in the deep 5A-8.
RS - Madison Besterfield, So., Wiregrass Ranch: Becomes the team’s new top player following the Bulls best season (region tourney berth) and the loss of nine seniors; had 11 kills in 2013.
Correspondent Mike Camunas covers prep volleyball in Pasco County. He can be reached at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.