Sarasota Christian is a small program with a big spirit.
When it comes to volleyball, a lot of the talk in this area centers on Riverview High and Cardinal Mooney, and rightfully so, but what about the small schools?
Specifically: What about a certain small school that acts like a big school?
Sarasota Christian doesn’t have many players. It has nine on varsity — eight healthy — and nine on junior varsity, as only 18 kids showed up to this year’s tryout. That limits what fourth-year coach Kimberly Scott can do with substitutions, among other challenges. That hasn’t stopped the Blazers, ranked 21st in Class 2A by MaxPreps, from going 8-8 thus far. At first glance, the team’s ranking seems to be incongruent with its record, but the Blazers have not played a typical 2A schedule.
In an attempt to prepare her team for anything, Scott has scheduled a glut of upper-tier schools for her team to tackle. The Blazers have played 7A school North Port High (twice), 6A schools Palmetto High (twice) and Braden River High, 5A school Southeast High, 4A school Lemon Bay High (twice) and 3A school Bradenton Christian (twice), in addition to some 2A and 1A matches. Not all of those programs are powerhouses, but sheer numbers suggest they should regularly a school like Sarasota Christian. They don’t, though, and that is a testament to how much Scott gets out of her tight-knit team.
“It builds character,” Scott said. “I picked this team. I think it is the total package. We have got what it takes.
“Our receive need to get better. That is one thing we struggled with against the bigger teams. If we can get the ball to our hitters, we are very successful. It is sometimes getting the ball to the setter that we struggle with.”
Blazers senior Ashtyn O’Shea said she revels in the more challenging matches, and she believes the rest of the team does, too. The team’s four seniors have been contributors from the beginning, O’Shea said, so they know what they are capable of doing. Last season, the Blazers went 18-9 and reached the regional semifinals before falling to First Baptist Academy 3-0.
This season, O’Shea said, the Blazers’ goal is to win its district tournament, then go from there. That will present an interesting challenge, because a funny thing happened while scheduling all the bigger schools: Sarasota Christian didn’t schedule any district opponents. That means the first time the Blazers play Donahue Catholic, Evangelical Christian, Community Christian or Southwest Florida Christian, it will be “win or go home.”
That is a risk the team is willing to take. Scott said her team has improved immensely from the beginning of the season to now, particularly in its serving. The Blazers feel like any server can win them a point at any time. O’Shea, a Southeastern University commit, is the team’s setter, and a co-captain alongside senior outside hitter Caitlin Wagler. Sophomore Hailey Knepp is also a force as a middle blocker. Against Palmetto — one of those big schools, and a good one, holding a 13-7 record as of Oct. 2 — on Sept. 26, Knepp and Wagler had eight and seven kills, respectively, and O’Shea had 24 assists. The team had 10 aces, and beat the Tigers in straight-sets for the second time this season.
I’m betting that the tough road the Blazers have walked will pay dividends in the playoffs — which begin in less than two weeks, somehow (Oct. 14). No one ever learned anything from doing something easy, and Sarasota Christian has learned a lot.