Two area beach volleyball programs will be clawing for a crown this weekend.
The Riverview and Cardinal Mooney high school programs will travel to Tavares's Hickory Point Beach April 26-27 for the Sunshine State Athletic Conference state tournament, the Rams in the public school AA class and the Cougars in the private school A class. For Riverview, the season has been about blazing a path, while for Cardinal Mooney it has been about maintaining past success.
It is Riverview's inaugural beach volleyball season, three years after the sport was adopted by the SSAC, and the Rams wasted no time in translating the program's indoor success to the sand. Riverview is one of two AA programs to field two full rosters — called ' Riverview Team 1 and ' Riverview Team 2,’ but serving the functions of varsity and junior varsity teams — and its depth, head coach Annie Howard said, is one of its biggest strengths. The Rams’ top team went undefeated, including 4-0 in district matches, on their way to an automatic state bid.
“We want to build this,” Howard said. “We saw there was no outlet for it (beach volleyball) and we had the support of the school. We are making a serious program.”
The Rams are led by top pair Madison Binkley, a sophomore Florida State commit, and McKenna Flaherty, a freshman. The Rams’ second and third pairs are also sophomores. Veteran leadership comes in the form of senior Abby Quigley and junior Emma Thrift, among others.
The Rams travel not by bus, but by van. It was on one such ride, back from a early-season jamboree Feb. 23 in Taveras, that the team started to click. Thrift was controlling the van’s music. As “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls blared from the speakers, Thrift said the team sang along with such vigor, other drivers started staring — not that the Rams cared, what with all the fun they were having. It is Riverview’s first season, and the self-proclaimed “goofiest team” is playing carefree. But don’t mistake that for a lack of determination.
“We play competitive," Thrift said. "We want each other to do better. Like, if someone is not focusing...
"You help keep me in focus," she said, turning to Binkley.
"It's my pet peeve," Binkley said. Both girls laughed.
The Cougars, meanwhile, are headed to their third-straight state tournament. Nathan Pickett took over as head coach after volunteering as an assistant last season under Chad Sutton, who is still the indoor volleyball coach. The Cougars returned nine players from last season’s state tournament team, which finished third. Pickett said that gave him confidence the team would be a contender again. He was right.
“I expect us to make it pretty far,” Pickett said of the tournament. “They have big hopes and big dreams. They have to focus and work harder. I feel like we are talented enough in the volleyball aspect. If we work hard, that will show.”
Mooney seniors Sophia Hebda and Kali Plattner said the biggest thing they have learned from past state tournament is to conserve energy. Teams can play five or more matches on the first day, they said, and it is easy to run out of energy for day two. This year, the Cougars plan on saving something for when it matters most.
They also are focusing on communicating, Hebda said, and staying consistent with ball control. Plattner said the games go by so quickly, you cannot let up for a single point. A March 18 3-0 win against Bishop Verot High gave the Cougars their favorite moment of the season — so far — and demonstrated all the characteristics the team hopes to repeat at states.
This weekend, Sarasota will find out just how far the Cougars and Rams can go in this budding high school sport.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.