The win gave the Rams confidence and chemistry moving forward.
Riverview High volleyball coach Nickie Halbert downplayed the personal significance of her and her team’s latest accomplishment — verbally, at least.
It’s tough to contain a smile.
The Rams took a step toward their long-term goals on Sept. 10 by doing something they have not done since Oct. 13, 2016, the year before Halbert joined, and beat Venice High in four sets, taking the final three after dropping the opening set. The Rams had lost four straight matches to the rival Indians, consistently one of the best programs in Florida under the tutelage of Brian Wheatley. Their last win came under coach Craig Wolfe, who is now an assistant coach at Venice. Halbert herself played for Wheatley at Venice, winning a state title in 2005.
Cardinal Mooney High, the county’s other volleyball power, also beat Venice High this season on Sept. 3. The Indians graduated 10 players from last year’s final four team. They are still learning, but they also entered the Rams match with a 5-1 record and they are still coached by Wheatley. The win meant a lot to Riverview — which made special “Beat Venice” shirts for the occasion — and to Halbert, no matter the circumstances.
“You always want to beat a program like Venice,” Halbert said. “This was a huge win for our program. It’s my first time beating them, so, finally.
“I feel relief in the sense that we were able to apply everything we have been working on in practice. We are going to see them again (on Oct. 2), so we can’t get so excited about this that we aren’t focused on that one. And, we have a tough match on Thursday (against Trinity Catholic). We have to move on, but games like this are definitely confidence builders.”
Halbert said most of the match became a blur, but she told her squad after the first set that it could not let Venice invade its home court. Positivity was never an issue, she said. From there, the Rams won each set in ever-wider margins: 26-24, 25-21 and 25-18. Junior outside hitter Madison Binkley led the Rams with 16 kills and senior libero Riah Walker, the team’s anchor, had 50 digs in what Halbert called an incredible defensive performance.
Binkley said the team (7-2) is finally starting to find itself. Losses to Cardinal Mooney and Fort Myers High forced the team to regroup. The work done since is now showing.
“We have had a lot of new additions this year,” Binkley said. “They have worked (themselves) in so well. We are developing. This game, especially, brought us together. It helped us realize who we are.”
Who the Rams are is a threat to return to the final four, a team adept at both being aggressive and letting opponents pile up mistakes. They’re a weird group, Binkley said — sometimes players will scream or burp in the locker room for no reason other than laughs — but the Rams have worked hard to break down the walls that, in the past, have prevented them from crossing off everything on their wish list. “Beat Venice” can now be added to that group. A state title remains, for now, but if the Rams have their way, it won’t remain for long.
After beating Venice, anything is possible for this team.
“I’m so proud of us,” Binkley said. “We deserve this.”