Gulf Coast High students at a home match? Nope, this is them taking over a large swath of Barron Collier High School's gym for the Sharks' Aug. 27 match against the arch-rival Cougars. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI
Collier County’s high school volleyball season is now in its third week, and it looks like we could be in store for an entertaining October and, hopefully, November.
But before recapping some of the action over the season’s first two weeks, allow me to write in the first person as I try (again) to illustrate why the Gulf Coast-Barron Collier volleyball series, in my opinion, is Collier County’s top sports rivalry. Period.
(FYI: The Aug. 27 match, won by the host Cougars in four sets, was the fifth meeting between these teams since CSI launched two years ago. Oh, and ladies, don’t change a thing … except, maybe, throw in a five-setter once in a while.)
To say I was hooked on this rivalry from the opening serve of that initial August 2017 matchup just would not be accurate. I was hooked while watching the end of the JV match! And although I can’t say I would’ve missed the birth of my child for it, I will admit, with some hesitation, that I worked last year’s first Sharks-Cougars encounter while also doing a fantasy football draft on my phone. That explains the 5-8 record I posted.
About two weeks ago, Glenn Christopher — a local photographer who’s been providing CSI with top-quality sports photos for almost a year now — asked if I could give him a volleyball assignment, as he’d never shot the sport before. I told Glenn I had just the match for him.
(Actually, this rivalry is so electric, I put two photographers on the Aug. 27 match. Christopher Svitek, a Gulf Coast student who began submitting photos for CSI last winter, also did a great job capturing the action. You can see Glenn and Christopher’s photo galleries at CollierSportsInsider.com/photos.)
Sure enough, when I saw Glenn during warmups, he was sporting a huge grin and shaking his head in disbelief. It occurred to me I should have told him to bring earplugs.
Between the second and third sets, after Barron Collier pulled away to take a 2-0 lead, Glenn lamented the idea of a sweep. He wanted more … and Gulf Coast obliged by eking out a 25-23 win in the third set. Then, as Gulf Coast’s student section threatened to take the roof off Barron’s gym, I wished I had brought some earplugs for myself.)
Glenn (and Christopher, too) already has Oct. 1 — the rematch at Gulf Coast High — circled on his calendar.
Thanks for your indulgence. Below are reports on several local teams that I’ve had the chance to see so far this season. Community School of Naples, Lely and Naples high schools are not included, though I hope to see each of them in the next couple weeks.
The reigning three-time regional champion Cougars, who’ve dropped only a single set during a 4-0 start, boast a couple of key newcomers in addition to the core group that returned from last year’s squad. Colleen Ziegelmaier, a junior transfer from Lely who’s a strong hitter and plays a variety of positions, and Bella Valazquez, who saw significant action last year as a freshman defensive specialist at Gulf Coast, are significant upgrades.
Valazquez has already had a positive impact on Barron’s back row, said senior libero Olivia D’Agostino.
“She’s really good, and it’s nice to have someone out there who I can really mix with because as a libero, you just have a connection, and we can communicate and know who’s getting what, and it’s such a help. And I know she’s got my back, and I got hers.”
Ziegelmaier has wasted no time asserting herself in the Cougars’ attack. She ranks second on the team to Skylar English in kills and assists, playing a mirror role to the junior captain.
Coach Yamil Del Valle said his team took some lumps in a preseason trip to Venice, but came out stronger for it.
“We got hit there, but I think that (seeing) that level of game helped us to improve a lot (and) to get ready for the season,” said Del Valle, who’s in his second year at Barron. “I (had) to challenge them before the start of the season to find a rhythm to get ready for the (postseason).”
Led, in part, to a second straight Class 3A state semifinal appearance last year by the formidable 1-2 punch of Breanah Rives and Jordan Benoit, this year’s Lions were dealt a punch to the gut when Rives left for Seacrest Country Day.
In addition to Rives, sophomore right side Grace Dean was lost to the Lions after suffering a torn ACL during summer basketball. This left coach Marci Walker with a roster of just eight players as the Lions (2-0) face an ambitious schedule that includes home matches with local powers Community School of Naples (Sept. 23) and Barron Collier (Oct. 7).
“I think the biggest thing was a lot of people didn’t really see it coming,” Walker said of Rives’ departure. “… But I think the girls have stepped up even more so.”
The good news: there’s still some talent and leadership on this team. Seniors Benoit and Alexa Oates, junior Alexa Moulzolf sophomore Kirstin Koert and seventh-grader Zara Stewart all were key contributors last season. Plus, the arrival of freshman Amarah Johnson — who Walker called a “true middle” and “has a huge amount of potential” — has allowed Walker to play Oates and Moulzolf both on the outside and in the middle.
“Somehow come August, we’ve got what we need,” Walker said back on Aug. 19 after the Lions’ season-opening home win over Palmetto Ridge. “And that is sort of what I said when I found out that Bree was leaving … ‘You know what, whoever God brings come August, then we’re going to make that work, and we’re going to go with that.’”
And when First Baptist rolls out the maroon carpet for Rives and her Seacrest teammates during the teams’ lone regular-season meeting on Sept. 24, Walker said, “I just think we really want to beat Seacrest this year.”
As the Sharks were staving off Barron’s bid for a second consecutive sweep against them, junior libero Izzy Gentile grabbed freshman outside hitter Lily Lucas by the shoulders and got right in her grill.
“High risk, high reward. You gotta go up and swing at the ball’” is what Gentile said she told Lucas. “‘You might as well lose a point swinging hard than roll a shot and you miss it. It was coming down to those last few points, and I’m like, ‘Lily, just swing. You have to rip this ball, or else you’re going to have regrets.’”
With several new hitters getting their first taste of the Barron game, including Lucas (who was two days shy of her 14th birthday), Gulf Coast coach Christy Wright wasn’t surprised that it took her team a couple of sets to settle down. However, Lucas — who Wright called “our best hitter” but only had a couple of kills through the first two sets — came up big in the third set, getting Gulf Coast some crucial points off kills and also on her serve.
“After the third game, I walked over to her — she was getting water — and I go, ‘Hey freshman, thanks for coming. Could you come a little earlier (next time)?’” Wright said. “She just laughed, but you can’t say that at the beginning when she’s (nervous).
“Every freshman that comes in here into this environment is nervous. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Oh, hey, look you’re actually pretty good.’ She’s a good player; she just has to realize she’s a good player because she’s very humble and she gets it in her own head sometimes because she doesn’t have a lot of confidence. But she needs to have some; she’s a good player.”
Wright believes the Sharks (now 3-1 after Thursday’s road sweep of Palmetto Ridge, which included a 31-29 third-set triumph) “have this learning curve right now,” but will only get better as the season progresses. She said that includes her two middles, junior Maddie Baker and 6-foot-1 sophomore Reese Tremitiere, who Wright said “gets better every minute.”
Luis Rodriguez’s first season as Bears coach was memorable, as the 2018 squad was the first in Palmetto Ridge volleyball history to advance to regionals. But even with many of his players back this season, Rodriguez is keeping expectations in check.
“I really don’t place a lot of emphasis on ‘We have to win districts’ or ‘We have to show up at regionals,’” Rodriguez said after his team’s season opener on Aug. 19, a straight-set loss at First Baptist Academy. “I really just ask them to come out and give me the best team that we can have out here. I say, ‘We don’t need a winning season, but I do need winning attitudes and winning effort.’ As long as I can get that, it doesn’t matter where we end up.
“Early on (this season), I think we look real strong. We played an amazing (First Baptist) team and our girls did really well. We had some good plays. I know that I’ve got a bunch of hard workers over here, and that is what’s going to carry us through. It’s really what we have here — a bunch of hard-working kids.”
Rives’ arrival — and that of fellow freshman newcomer Carole Ann Hussey — signals a rebirth of sorts for coach Jan Class and his Stingrays.
After a four-year run from 2013-16 that saw Seacrest win Collier County’s first state volleyball title, make two more state finals appearances and never advance lower than the regional finals, the Stingrays narrowly missed the playoffs in 2017 and went through a complete rebuilding season in 2018.
As bad as last year’s 7-18 record may have looked, the Stingrays boasted some young talent that only figures to get better this season. Class said senior middle blocker Amy Bruton grew up a lot in the past year, and expects her to be even better this season.
“What we try to do right now is to put all the pieces together so that everybody gets the confidence and (we can) start rebuilding the program together,” Class said.
As for the big-hitting Rives and Hussey? Class said Rives “is a great addition for the program” while Hussey “is going to be great — right now, she’s good and we’re working (on) a lot. But she’s young.”
Class concluded: “I cannot wait to see the team in four years … .”
Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider. Email Gregg Hardy at email@example.com.