The past two seasons, Land O’ Lakes High hasn’t been much of a factor in Pasco County volleyball. With only five wins in 2011-12, the Gators were just an afterthought.
But Land O’ Lakes is off to a hot start, already 4-1.
Two reasons for the Gators success: the return of OH Tyra Long and bringing in a new coach, Daniel Cunningham.
“I can’t take much of the credit,” said Cunningham, who added that he was hired halfway through tryouts. “They all worked hard in the offseason playing club ball and its been a fruition of just them working hard. They deserve all the credit and they’re more excited now that they’re winning and are competitive.”
Long has been the Gators big hitter up front, while the team’s only loss is to Class 5A-District 8 rival Dunedin (3-1), in which the difference was 12 points. Besides that, the Gators have lost only two games, those coming in a hard-fought 3-2 win over Tarpon Springs.
Helping the improvement has been the addition of transfers Kelsey Bridges from Carrollwood Day and Samantha Miles from Robinson. But as Cunningham has seen, the additional hard work has been the real payoff.
“They’re real excited and they know they’re in a deep district, while everyone we’ve played so far has been really tough,” Cunningham said. “But the extra effort, even wanting to practice more and on the weekends has been the difference maker for us, which has made us competitive, and you can tell that has made them play even harder.”
Bishop McLaughlin’s big hitters
The Hurricanes already had one of the county’s top volleyball players. Junior Alyssa Mathis, a six-foot junior who has committed to San Diego State, is one of the bigger and more powerful hitters. However, Bishop Mclaughlin also has another 6-footer, Aileen Hnatiuk, manning the net.
“If we work on our setting, if we get that down, we’ll be hard to knock out,” coach Doug Chinchar said. “We can make a nice run at the whole thing (3A state title).”
While not a deep team (just nine players), The Hurricanes boast a lot of a talent, from outside hitters to libero. However, Bishop will still have to get through Tampa Prep to get deeper into the playoffs.
“When you have two kids that can bomb it, teams have a tough time defending that,” Chinchar said. “People would always say Alyssa is fantastic, but now they’re asking, ‘Who is No. 10?’ That’s Aileen. She’s getting Division-I interest now, too.
“We’re a very low-key. We used to get excited to play big teams, but now we’re more business like. People are circling us on their schedule and we’re getting everyone’s best match.”
The Hurricanes are 3-0 and played at Carrollwood Day on Tuesday evening, but also host their annual tournament this weekend. Teams expected to play are Seffner Christian, Crystal River, Brooks-DeBartolo, Academy at the Lakes, Lecanto Seven Rivers, Tampa Bay HEAT and Brooksville Nature Coast.
Mitchell’s mighty schedule
Mitchell coach Keith Paulk knows his team started with a tough schedule, and as of Tuesday, were 4-3 and hosting Fivay in the evening.
“We’ve played a lot of strong teams and play on winning a lot the rest of the season, but we’ve had a lot of early-season two-point losses in games,” Paulk said. “If we have got one weakness, it’s the middle touching the net and giving away points. We’ll clean it up. Because this is one of the tallest groups I’ve had, so we’re going to have a lot of blocks.”
On a team with the shortest player at 5-foot-4, senior OH Danielle Green is leading the way with 57 kills and 66 digs, and sophomore Kayla Widera has a team-high 13 blocks. Paulk adds the play of senior libero Niki Miranda-Dubay has also led to the Mustangs success.
The Mustangs are also 3-0 in their 6A-10 district, one they hope to take over the likes of Osceola, Spring Hill Springstead, Dixie Hollins and Largo.
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.