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Aquinas volleyball reaches state final

Beset by injuries, talented youngsters fall to Tallahassee Leon in championship game

St. Thomas Aquinas' Isabella Riquezes, left, Meredith Dixon (5) and Mya Bowers (2) console each other after their Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas' Isabella Riquezes, left, Meredith Dixon (5) and Mya Bowers (2) console each other after their Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

FORT MYERS | Observers questioned St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball’s ability to extend their run of excellence when the Raiders had to replace 10 seniors from a state champion. But coach Lisa Zielinski hasn’t won six state titles without a system that continually feeds the team.

Add to that challenge the string of injuries the Raiders have faced, and it’s a wonder that they advanced to the state final. But advance they did, into a rematch with Tallahassee Leon. Unfortunately, as with their September match, Leon rode Shania Cromartie’s 18 kills to an 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 victory in the Class 6A championship match.

St. Thomas Aquinas knew what to expect when the Raiders faced Leon in the final Nov. 15. Leon had won their September match in five sets, rallying from 2-1 down.

During the championship match, the Raiders found themselves down 2-1 after struggling on service-reception. Leon had 10 aces for the match and several other strong serves that forced STA to struggle. The Raiders dialed up the intensity in the fourth game. After trailing through the first half of the game, senior Shannon Schulte served back-to-back aces to put the Raiders up 12-11 — their first lead since leading 3-2 in the third game.

“Every time you get behind the line it’s so different,” Schulte said. “You look at everyone who you think has the slightest bit of doubting themselves and just serve where you feel comfortable.”

Aquinas stayed 2-3 points ahead until Cromartie’s back-to-back kills and an Aquinas hitting error tied it a 20-20. The teams tied at 21 and at 22 before Alexa Washington set A’niyah Cobb for four kills to close out Leon’s second state championship and deny STA its seventh crown.

“It was more adjusting to where they were hitting,” said St. Thomas Aquinas junior middle blocker Andi Cherenfant. “They were jumping high. It was more adjustments.”

Gabriella Marzano and Liah Perez hype each other up  before St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

Gabriella Marzano and Liah Perez hype each other up before St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

St. Thomas Aquinas' Meredith Dixon (5) blocks Leon's A'niyah Cobb as STA's Kalin Hubbard, left, joins in during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas' Meredith Dixon (5) blocks Leon's A'niyah Cobb as STA's Kalin Hubbard, left, joins in during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

St. Thomas Aquinas libero Alyssa McBean, right, celebrates a point with Meredith Dixon (5) and Isabella Riquezes (4) during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas libero Alyssa McBean, right, celebrates a point with Meredith Dixon (5) and Isabella Riquezes (4) during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

St. Thomas Aquinas blockers Zy'aire Barr, left, and Andi Cherenfant attempt to block Leon's Cailin Demps during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas blockers Zy'aire Barr, left, and Andi Cherenfant attempt to block Leon's Cailin Demps during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

Freshmah Zy’aire Barr led the Raiders with 14 kills and added two blocks, while junior Lilly Costigan added 11 kills and two blocks.

“Their hitters were a lot more dynamic on the ball, a lot more smart with the ball,” Costigan said. “They knew where our weaknesses were, where to go on the block. They’re an amazing team. They deserve everything they got.”

Aquinas’ youth movement moved into the setter role. Junior Erin Engel had 19 assists, while sophomore Liah Perez added 17 assists.

 

NEW TALENT TO REBUILD

STA’s return to the state final may have been expected, but several newcomers had to overcome a steep learning curve. Only six of the current Raiders were on the roster of the 2018 team. That meant backups taking leadership roles, new passers to dig attacks to new setters, who then set new hitters.

“The entire team came together to establish our culture of sportsmanship, competitiveness, accountability and teamwork,” Zielinski said. “They learned to play for each other and to put their teammates ahead of their personal agendas. The upperclassmen set a tone and environment of what it takes to be successful and what’s expected as a member of the St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball team.”

Carter Mogridge, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who had a key role on the 2018 Class 8A title team, led the Raiders with 320 kills, while sophomore Meredith Dixon — also on the 2018 team — had 243 kills. Barr added 147 kills. The top three Aquinas diggers were newcomers. Sophomore Alyssa McBean led with 291 digs.

Engel, one of the new setters, credited goal-setting and a strong work ethic with teaching the newcomers the Aquinas way. She tag-teamed the setter role with Perez, who had 288 assists on the season.

“In the beginning of the season, we set our goals,” said Engel, who ended up with 523 assists. “This is what we want to do, what do we need to do to get there. We just take it one game at a time. Our defense, we really stepped up. Our seniors helped encourage us and teach us the ways of being on varsity.”

Zielinski turned to a trusted old friend — the crucible of a tough schedule — to indoctrinate the newcomers. The journey included matches against several playoff teams, including Georgia state champion Marietta Walton, Leon and Class 7A finalist Oviedo Hagerty.

“This year, we were able to have a variety of different teams that allowed us to grow and find things we needed to fix on the court,” Schulte said. “That made us work together, work better and more collectively.”

Senior middle hitter Mya Bowers said that the newcomers embraced emphasizing teamwork over individual accolades. “I think we just pushed and gained all the momentum we could to reach this point,” Bowers said.

 

‘LIVE FOR THOSE MOMENTS’

The Raiders also had to battle a steady stream of injuries. They played the state final without Mogridge and hitter Alexandra Knapik. Mogridge missed the last month with knee surgery. Knapik missed the last two matches with torn ligaments in her ankle. Cherenfant played despite suffering a thumb injury in practice days before the final.

But barring transfers, the Raiders should return most of their core next year. Barr said simply that the Raiders will be back and will play harder than ever. Costigan and Cherenfant said they’d especially be ready should they face Leon again.

Schulte said the Raiders should remember the emotion they carried in a first-set victory and the drama of the last set.

“Just live for those moments and take advantage of the opportunities that you’re given,” Schulte said. “St. Thomas Aquinas really does provide us those opportunities that a lot of other schools didn’t.”

St. Thomas Aquinas blockers Mya Bowers (2), Kalin Hubbard (11) and Zy'aire Barr (13) try to block Leon's Shania Cromartie during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.

Photographer: LYNN RAMSEY | FC

St. Thomas Aquinas blockers Mya Bowers (2), Kalin Hubbard (11) and Zy'aire Barr (13) try to block Leon's Shania Cromartie during St. Thomas Aquinas' Class 6A girls volleyball state final vs. Tallahassee Leon, Nov. 15, 2019 at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers. Leon won the match 18-25, 25-10, 25-22, 26-24 for its second title.


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