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Braden River High volleyball has its eyes on third-straight district title

The Pirates overcame the loss of a senior leader to finish the regular season 18-6.

Braden River sophomore Molly Horalek (16), sophomore Mia McGuire (7), senior Riley Hinkle (9), junior Morgan Beane (13) and junior Baylee Hinkle (15) celebrate a win over ODA.
Braden River sophomore Molly Horalek (16), sophomore Mia McGuire (7), senior Riley Hinkle (9), junior Morgan Beane (13) and junior Baylee Hinkle (15) celebrate a win over ODA.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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If the Braden River High volleyball team is going to win a third-straight district title, it will do so not only because of top-end talent, but because of depth and intestinal fortitude. 

The Pirates wrapped the 2023 regular season with an 18-6 record. Getting to that point has not gone according to Head Coach Matthew McElhiney's plan, as an injury to senior setter Mary Allison McGuire has had a cascading effect on the team, forcing younger players into the lineup. In some cases, those young players are holding down positions they have never previously played. 

Yet the wins kept coming. 

"We have had sophomores and juniors step into roles earlier than they normally would have," McElhiney said. "In some ways, that has made us stronger now because they got that experience. They were thrown into the fire and they had to figure things out." 

Watching her teammates from the bench has been difficult for McGuire, who was expected to be one of the Pirates' key pieces and leaders in 2023.

She suffered a concussion in the team's season-opening match against The Out-of-Door Academy that kept her out of action for almost a month. After returning for two weeks and playing well, McGuire suffered a fractured foot during an Oct. 2 practice. The injury has a six-week recovery time, McGuire said, meaning she will miss the Pirates' postseason run. 

In lieu of being on the court, McGuire said, she has turned her attention to helping her teammates, especially the players now having to fill the void left by McGuire, in other ways. 

"I'm investing my energy in being there for them," McGuire said. "For most of them, it is a brand-new position they are playing. It can be a lot mentally. I want to make sure I'm a person they can have for compliments or advice or just a mental break." 

Braden River sophomore Mia McGuire serves against ODA on Aug. 22. McGuire finished the year with 166 digs, helping the team to a district title.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

One of those teammates is McGuire's sister, sophomore Mia McGuire, a natural defensive specialist who happened to learn the setter position during the team's preseason practices. She was forced into action right away. Mary Allison McGuire said what little she remembers of the ODA match after her concussion involves her crying on the bench — not tears of pain, but tears of pride for her sister stepping up. The elder McGuire said she has since worked with her sister on proper setter positioning, focusing on transitions on and off the net. 

McElhiney said Mia McGuire has had ups and downs in 2023, like any player learning a position for the first time, but overall has helped to keep the team stable through the tumultuous season. So has junior Jaliyah Elder, who the team has asked to move to several different positions. Lately, Elder said, she has been filling multiple roles within the same match: Elder will act as a setter in the back row, then rotate and act as a middle hitter in the front row, then stay in the front row and act as a setter once again. 

"I'm on the court all the time now," Elder said. "I'm proud of myself for that. It feels good to take advantage of my opportunity to play a lot." 

Braden River High junior Jaliyah Elder and senior Mary Allison McGuire have taken different paths during the 2023 season, but both have assisted the team however they can.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

While the less experienced players got the hang of things, the Pirates' other veterans, like seniors Brynna Sands and Aryanna Spainhower, have continued to carry their weight. In a 3-1 win over Riverview High on Sept. 21, Sands had 9 kills, 15 digs, two aces and a block, while Spainhower had 11 kills, 18 digs and a block. 

The team still has some learning to do. The Pirates finished the regular season with three-straight losses, to Bradenton Christian School (17-8), Venice High (17-6) and Carrollwood Day School (22-2). All three teams are ranked in the top-20 of their respective Florida High School Athletic Association classes, and Venice and Carrollwood Day are in the top-10 in Florida overall. McElhiney said he liked how his team's effort improved each match, particularly against Carrollwood Day, and believes the tough tests will have his team ready for the speed of the postseason at the Class 5A level. 

The Pirates, the No. 1 seed in District 11, will start their district title defense at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 against either Parrish Community High (11-9) or Mariner High (11-12) at home. A win would put the Pirates back in the title game at 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at home; North Fort Myers High (17-6) is the No. 2 seed and likely the biggest threat to the team's three-peat. 

No matter who the Pirates face, in the district tournament or later in the regional tournament, McElhiney is proud of how his team has come together. 

"They're a bunch of goofballs," McElhiney said. "Sometimes that can be helpful for a team. They have fun on the court. They also put in a lot of training time. This is a special group, one of the best we have had in terms of dedication, top to bottom. Hopefully we can add number three to the (district title) banner." 



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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