BRADENTON — Decked out in her team colors, Kahlee York guards the net as if her life depends on it.
With wisps of hair breaking free from her ponytail and beads of sweat trickling down the sides of her face, the 14-year-old stands with a look of unwavering focus and determination upon her face.
The Lakewood Ranch High freshman middle hitter holds her position, as her Coastline Volleyball 14 Rox Black teammates maneuver back and forth across the court behind her.
It isn’t long before the ball sails toward York’s outstretched arms, and she sends the ball spiking down onto her opponent.
Cheers reverberate throughout the gym, as the players come together in celebration, before quickly disbursing back to their positions as the next play begins.
It’s a typical practice session for York and her Coastline Volleyball 14 Rox Black teammates, who eagerly are preparing for their next chance to compete — this time on a national stage.
The team was one of 48 teams who earned a bid to the USA Volleyball Girls Junior Nationals June 30 through July 3, in Dallas. Coastline Volleyball finished second out of 57 teams at the 2013 USAV Florida Regional Qualifier April 27-28, in Orlando, to earn the bid and become the club’s first team to earn a national bid in just its first year of existence.
“It’s amazing,” York says of qualifying for nationals. “We lost our first game, so to be able to come back and get that win was so emotional and exciting.”
Will to win
The Coastline Volleyball 14 Rox Black team formed back in November and competed in four tournaments, playing up in the 15s division, before competing in its first of three national qualifiers March 29 through March 31.
“That first practice they all just hit it off and clicked really well,” says Coastline Volleyball coach Matt McElhiney, who also coaches at Braden River High. “They are extremely motivated, which is half of the battle. They are a very (coachable) group of kids who are enthusiastic about learning and want to get better.
“We told them if you get beat, it’s OK,” McElhiney says of playing up a division. “We wanted to play the best competition we could find, and that translated toward the end of the season and had a really strong effect on how they dealt with adversity.”
The team competed in the Big South Qualifier in Atlanta and the Lonestar Qualifier in Dallas, but finished ninth in both tournaments out of a combined 316 teams. The top 2 teams in each qualifier earned a national bid.
With their season on the line, the girls headed to Florida Region Qualifier with high expectations. The team went 8-1 over a two-day span to secure the bid.
“I knew we had a really talented group of kids,” McElhiney says. “I told them at the beginning of the season our ultimate goal was to try and qualify for nationals.
“Florida is one of the best regions in the nation,” McElhiney says. “This was their last chance for the season, and they found ways to win when they had to.”
Following the Regional Qualifier, the girls took a month off, before reconvening at the end of May to begin preparing for the USA Volleyball Girls Junior Nationals.
The girls practiced three nights a week, before heading up to Orlando for the 2013 AAU Girls Junior National Volleyball Championship, which began June 19 and runs through June 22. The open tournament features 153 teams from across the United States and Puerto Rico in the 14U Club division.
“I’m so excited to be able to compete and have that experience with everyone,” York says of competing in nationals. “The passion on this team is so strong, and everyone on this team wants it so bad.”
Following the AAU Girls Junior National Volleyball Championships, the girls will return home, before flying out June 29, to Texas.
“They’re not going up against anything they haven’t already seen in practice, and I think that’s key for them,” McElhiney says. “They play tough teams every day they practice at home. They’ve set the bar extremely high and they’ve really risen to that. They don’t shy away. They rise up to the occasion.
“I’m very confident, but I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, we’re just happy to be here,’” he says. “If they approach it point by point and game by game, and keep the same focus they’ve had at practice the past few weeks, then I think they’ll do very well.”
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.