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New coach rebuilds Sailors volleyball with sense of community

Daris Rodriguez said her team must build better bonds before they can start winning consistently. Plus, a look at other area teams.

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It's never easy to turn around a struggling program in one season, but Daris Rodriguez is trying her hardest. 

After the Sarasota High volleyball team's 3-0 home loss to Port Charlotte High on Tuesday night, the first-year head coach took her team into the locker room for a lengthy talk — longer than normal, certainly, for the fourth match of the season. But Rodriguez has to talk to them about, among other things, the way the Sailors handled the match's third set, when they led 15-9 before losing it 25-22. 

"I feel like the team defeated itself," Rodriguez said. "They could have done better if they had each other's backs and played together. But we do have young players like a freshman setter and in the end, it's a great learning experience. They thought they had the set won and beat themselves (as a result)." 

Rodriguez knows what she's talking about. She is in the athletic hall of fame at both Lakeland Community College, where she spent one season, and Lynn University, where she spent three.  She was even named Lynn's Athlete of the Year in 2009. As a coach, Rodriguez has been with WAVE Volleyball Club among other stops. She'll be using her knowledge to turn around the Sailors, who have not had a winning record since 2016-2017, when they went 15-10 under Nathan Pickett.

With high-level volleyball programs like Cardinal Mooney High, Riverview High and even Venice High that exist in the area, it's not an easy task, but Rodriguez believes it can be done. It will require a tight bond on and off the court, she said. 

"I kept hearing the same things from previous parents and players when I took the job: 'We have a good team, but we don't have a good program,'" Rodriguez said. "My goal is to build a community. We need to have each other's backs for moments like this. When we have a defeat, we need to pop out something (positive) and not just feel lost."

It's why Rodriguez made sure her team did things like hold clinics for younger players and take a visit to TreeUmph! Adventure Course over the summer. In volleyball, maybe more than in any other sport except football, communication is key. Players have a split second to react to a shot from an opposing team or to decide who's getting a kill attempt. If not everyone is on the same page, it's not going to work. 

Already, the Sailors have shown a spark I hadn't seen before. Despite the Port Charlotte loss, Sarasota is 2-2 on the year, having swept North Port High and Parrish Community High, and being swept by typical state contender Venice. There's talent on the team, too: senior Alexis Perry had seven kills, three aces and five digs against the Pirates. Against Parrish, junior Jillian Davidson had eight blocks. Junior libero Jenna Chapman was diving for balls with aplomb — and getting to them more often than not. 

Having seen the Sailors play both this year and in recent years, I can tell they're going in the right direction. They're simply young and learning from a coach still implementing her system. Rodriguez said she's already seen her team's passing and blocking improve a lot since her first practice. By the end of the season, the fundamentals should be there and hopefully, so should the chemistry. 


Cougars hit a snag

It might surprise area volleyball fans to know that the Sailors have the same record as Cardinal Mooney, at least as of Aug. 30. The Cougars won their first two matches against Bishop McLaughlin High and Braden River High, but have been swept in their two most recent matches against Santa Fe High and Calvary Christian.

Now, Santa Fe is the defending Florida High School Athletic Association Class 4A state champion and Calvary Christian is the defending FHSAA Class 3A champion, so it's not like they've been losing to scrubs. Plus, all four matches have been on the road, as is Mooney Coach Chad Davis' preferred scheduling, with the team's first home match not until Sept. 13. Is it a sign of anything serious? I doubt it. The Cougars were swept a few times early in the 2021 season before ultimately finishing 20-8. They play the top teams for a reason: to get ready for the playoffs. I suspect they will be playing their best when it matters most, like they always do. 


Tornadoes turnaround continues

A year ago, the Booker High volleyball program was where Sarasota is now: in year one of a turnaround after years of struggles. In the Tornadoes' year two, things continue to look up. Booker is 3-1 with sweeps of Sarasota Military Academy, Southeast High and Bayshore High, and lone loss coming against Palmetto High. None of the wins are against juggernauts, but a win is always a better sign than a loss. According to MaxPreps, Booker has a robust 25 players in its program, a great sign for the future of the program. 

Based on the school's Twitter account, it looks like the team is having a ton of fun, too. It's nice to be reminded that's what it's all about. 



Ryan Kohn

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.

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