Barron Collier middle hitter Hannah Alfes (8) soars above the defense of Naples' Cassandra Alzamora (10) and Raylee Rushing (4) as she attempts to hit a winner during Wednesday night's match at Barron Collier High School. GREGG HARDY/CSI
The Naples Golden Eagles threw down the gauntlet before the 2018 volleyball season even started.
On Wednesday night, the Barron Collier Cougars were happy to pick it up. They dropped the Golden Eagles in straight sets, 25-17, 25-23, 25-19.
Since the start of the season, talk out of the Naples High gym was that this year’s Eagles squad — loaded with a bunch of experienced juniors — was ready to end Barron Collier’s stranglehold over Class 7A’s District 12.
Cougars junior middle blocker Hannah Alfes said she and her teammates took notice.
“They kind of had us riled up, saying this was the year that they could beat us,” said Alfes, who recorded a team-high 10 kills to go along with three blocks Wednesday. “I think we were like, ‘That’s not going to happen this year. We’re going to come out; we’re going to show them that we could do it.’”
Naples (4-4) won’t have to wait too long for its next shot at Barron (5-6). The Cougars visit the Eagles’ gym on Sept. 27. After that, there could be a third and fourth meeting between the two rivals in the district championship game and the regional semifinals, respectively.
But between now and the 27th, Naples’ standout junior outside hitter, Lily Grasso, said the Golden Eagles have to get off the “mental roller coaster” that coach Rich Hubbard has been chiding them about.
“We’re going to be putting in a lot of work; we’re going to be working on the whole roller coaster thing — trying to stay at the same level,” Grasso said. “But hopefully in our home (rematch with Barron) we can win and play our best.”
Naples may have to up its game dramatically to compete with Barron this season. Alfes said the Cougars are “a whole different team” after competing in a Miami tournament last weekend. And, they are ready to welcome back two starters from injury — setter Hope Casella and middle Brooke Beebe — in the coming days.
Barron coach Yamil Del Valle said the Cougars found their rhythm last weekend, and kept it going against Naples. In fact, he liked what he saw so much that he pushed back the return of Casella and Beebe, who have resumed practicing with the team. Del Valle expects both of them to play Monday against First Baptist, if not this weekend.
“We’re getting better,” Del Valle said. “It was good competition; the games down there were faster, and that helped us as a team. That helped today a lot. … I’m really happy with what I saw.”
The Cougars will hit the road again this weekend for a tournament hosted by defending Class 8A state champ Venice. They’ll play Ransom Everglades and Venice on Friday, with a possible Saturday showdown in the cards against 7A powerhouse Fort Myers (which Barron beat in last year’s regional semifinals en route to reaching the state title match).
After Barron Collier rattled off eight straight points — seven coming off the serve of Megan Walling — to pull away in the first set, the Golden Eagles made a stand in the second set … or so they thought.
With the score deadlocked at 23-23, some of the Eagles thought Alex Renda put down a winner for the pivotal point and started to celebrate, but the Cougars somehow kept the point alive and won a long, spirited rally. Then they promptly closed out the set.
“Points like that mentally drain us,” Grasso said. “It’s really hard to come back from that because we’re physically drained and mentally drained.”
Naples managed to come out strong in the third set, taking a 7-1 lead on Grasso’s serve. But once the Cougars steadied themselves, it was apparent the Eagles had little left in the tank to fight them off.
It was the second set that really irked Hubbard.
“When we got right there, and we were getting ready to take over, something would go wrong,” Hubbard said. “And it would be us — and it would be more mental than physical. Every time … we just couldn’t get past that.
“… We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The Cougars’ offense ran like a well-oiled machine Wednesday, and sophomore captain Skylar English was at the center of it all. Still serving as the Cougars’ setter while Casella recovers from her injury, English did whatever was needed against Naples.
Her stat line? Eight kills (again, from the setter position), six aces, four blocks, 12 digs and 20 assists. Alfes, Jennifer Coxwell (nine kills) and Liz Bradley (six kills) were the recipients of English’s pin-point sets.
Said English: “We’ve gone through a few obstacles with injuries and different lineups, so this was really a good game to win for us, (to) get us some momentum going into the next couple games and to push us to work harder.”
Although she’s a proven setter, Barron is a far more dangerous team with English spiking rather than setting.
“She’s doing everything, and I’m forcing her to hit balls too,” Del Valle said.
Naples freshman Molly Richards has plenty of Naples-Barron clashes to look forward to over the next four years.
She provided strong serving, hitting and defending throughout Wednesday’s match.
Asked about her play, Hubbard said she played well, “especially for a freshman and in the environment she was in. Yeah, she did good.”
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