Manta Rays make name for themselves with breakout season

Marco Island Academy's Virginia Lowe (13) high fives Casey Erickson after the Manta Rays won a point in their district semifinal against Seacrest Country Day on Oct. 15 at First Baptist Academy. GREGG HARDY/CSI


Quick! What Collier County high school volleyball team had the best regular-season winning percentage entering last week’s district tournaments?

Community School of Naples? Nope. The Seahawks boasted an .800 winning clip by going 20-5.

Barron Collier? Good guess, but try again. The Cougars and Seahawks had identical 20-5 records.

First Baptist Academy? Thanks for playing, but no. The Lions — who, like the Cougars, have reached the state semifinals in consecutive seasons — owned a .727 winning percentage with a 16-6 record in the regular season.

Answer: It was Marco Island Academy … of course. The Manta Rays’ 20-3 record gave them an eye-popping .869 winning percentage. (Note: MIA is now 20-4 after losing to Seacrest Country Day in last week’s Class 2A-District 12 semifinal.)

OK, that was a bit of a trick question. Never before in the program’s nine-year history had Marco Island Academy enjoyed a winning season. (Last year’s 11-13 mark, however, may have been a sign of good things to come.)

Regardless, thanks to the Florida High School Athletic Association’s new playoff system, the Manta Rays earned a spot in the regional quarterfinals, where they’ll travel to Evangelical Christian (15-12) on Thursday night. Under the old system, when only the district champion and runner-up made it to regionals, MIA would’ve been on the outside looking in.

PHOTO GALLERY: View images of the MIA-Seacrest district semifinal

“They’re willing to learn all the time,” Manta Rays coach Alyssa Stolinas said after the district semifinal loss to Seacrest. “They definitely put the hard work in this season. They showed they can compete with bigger schools. They worked really hard this offseason … to be where they are today.”

So, how good are these Manta Rays, really? Granted, the majority of their wins came against small local programs like Donahue Catholic, Mason Classical Academy, The Village School and Everglades City.

Lauren Faremouth keeps a point alive during Marco Island Academy’s district semifinal against Seacrest on Oct. 15 at First Baptist Academy. GREGG HARDY/CSI

However, as Stolinas said, MIA also took on some bigger schools like Class 6A Palmetto Ridge, Class 5A Golden Gate and Class 3A St. John Neumann. (The Manta Rays got Golden Gate’s attention by winning the first two sets on the Titans’ home floor before the hosts rallied to win in five; and they went to Neumann and swept the Celtics fairly comfortably (though Neumann exacted a measure of revenge later in the season with a four-set win at MIA.)

Senior captain Lauren Faremouth said the highlight of MIA’s season came in mid September when it won the Shark Invitational hosted by Oasis High School. The Manta Rays didn’t just win the event; they dominated it, dropping only one set in the process. They swept the host Sharks twice (in the opener and in the finale) and scored a three-set win over Class 5A Lely — MIA’s first victory in any sport over the Trojans, its closest Collier County foe. There were also straight-set wins against Everglades City and Class 5A Cape Coral-Mariner.

Ask Stolinas about the future of Manta Rays volleyball, and a smile flashes across her face. Freshmen and sophomores form the majority of this year’s MIA squad, which will lose three seniors (including two starters).

“We just had a couple of freshmen step up (and) a sophomore step up,” Stolinas said. “We’re still really a young team.”

Faremouth was asked if this breakout 2019 season could be a springboard to something bigger for Marco Island Academy.

“Hopefully,” she said. “I hope when I come (back) and watch one of their games, they’re better than ever. When I started off freshman year, we were losing (a lot). And then, throughout every year, we got increasingly better. And then, this year, it’s flipped around.”

There’s likely still some fight left in Faremouth and the Manta Rays this season, though. Calling her team “underdogs” at the Shark Invite, Faremouth said she and her teammates entered that event with a “just play your best and have fun” mindset. In other words, they were going to let the chips fall where they may.

Who knows, if they play that way Thursday at Evangelical Christian, the Manta Rays could surprise yet again.

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