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Aquinas volleyball wins sixth state title

Team, led by 10 seniors, battled adversity, beat longtime rival Venice to advance

St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball players cheer after being crowned state champs Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.

Photographer: COURTESY

St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball players cheer after being crowned state champs Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.

FORT LAUDERDALE | St. Thomas Aquinas’ state-volleyball-semifinal loss to Venice in 2017 taught the Raiders one thing – state championships are not guaranteed. They go to those who work for it.

Led by 10 seniors, including three-time champion Kelsey O’Loughlin, the Raiders avenged their loss against Venice in this year’s state semifinals. St. Thomas Aquinas then won their fourth title in five years, beating Tampa Plant for the third consecutive time. The Raiders won the Class 8A state final 17-25, 25-23, 25-15, 25-19 Nov. 17 at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers.

St. Thomas Aquinas amassed its sixth state title, tying for sixth all-time. Cardinal Gibbons has a state-record 20 state titles.

The state-final match was a team effort. At 6-foot-1, senior middle blocker Sophie Davis dominated the net with 17 kills and a season-high eight blocks. Fellow senior Paige Barash teamed up with Davis on six blocks. Plant hit away from 6-foot-4 freshman Olivia Mogridge, but she contributed two blocks and 11 kills.

St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball players celebrate their sixth state championship after the beating Tampa Plant Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.

Photographer: COURTESY

St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball players celebrate their sixth state championship after the beating Tampa Plant Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.

St. Thomas Aquinas coach Lisa Zielinski said Plant attacked the Raiders aggressively in the first game. The Panthers also dug up most of Aquinas’ first-game attacks. “They were a little tight, maybe a little nervous,” Zielinski said. “I told them they had to relax a little bit.”

O’Loughlin finished her final high-school match with 25 assists. Teammate Mallory Barash added 19 assists, while senior libero Amanda Silvestri had 13 digs. 


STATE TITLES NOT GUARANTEED

The road to Fort Myers started with an unexpected loss in 2017. The St. Thomas Aquinas express seemed destined for a third consecutive state championship until Venice derailed the Raiders with a three-game sweep.

Zielinksi said that was on her team’s minds all season. St. Thomas Aquinas-Venice has developed into quite the rivalry. Since St. Thomas Aquinas beat Venice for the Raiders’ second title in 2004, they have clashed three more times with either state titles or state-final berths on the line.

“They didn’t like losing to (Venice) – one, they were knocked out; two, it was Venice,” Zielinski said. “This year, it was on the chalkboard to avenge that loss.”

Silvestri, who along with senior Taylor Gulla has two titles with the Raiders, said the loss was a shock. “After that loss, it woke us up to the fact that we have to work for what we want,” Silvestri said. “It wouldn’t be handed to us.”

O’Loughlin said much of the work went into developing a better mental capacity. Playing in front of a hostile crowd at Venice last year shook up the Raiders. They journeyed to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, Arizona, a master class in handling big-game jitters.

St. Thomas Aquinas went 2-5 in Arizona. Everywhere they looked, they saw nationally ranked teams. They all wanted to test their mettle against West Coast volleyball. The Raiders applied those lessons to a season-ending 15-match win streak.

“The teams we played were very gritty and mentally tough,” O’Loughlin said. “We were too, but they were at a different level than we were.”

St. Thomas Aquinas won the Venice rematch this time 25-21, 25-17, 21-25, 25-21. Davis had eight kills and seven blocks, Paige Barash had 18 kills and 10 digs and Mogridge had four blocks.

Zielinski said the seniors helped the team build chemistry, a chemistry that helped the Raiders survive playoff road trips and injuries.

“They were very resilient in handling all those situations,” Zielinski said. “That made the difference. By the end of the season, they were playing their best volleyball.”

Veterans led the way. On the season, O’Loughlin posted 418 assists, while Davis finished with 229 kills and 100 blocks. Silvestri posted 314 digs. Transfers also aided the Raiders. Mogridge, who moved in from Oviedo, posted 214 kills and 52 blocks. Paige and Mallory Barash, transfers from West Boca Raton, also brought a spark to the Raiders. Paige Barash had 178 kills, while Mallory backed up O’Loughlin with 353 assists. “Everyone was welcoming to all of us,” Mogridge said. “They helped us get to where we are now.”

Zielinski especially spoke of how Davis and Mogridge pushed each other in practice. She said Mogridge, though a freshman, played like a senior. “I remember one day she blocked Sophie,” Zielinski said. “Sophie said, ‘I just made her day, and she ruined mine.’ They had a friendly rivalry.”

Mogridge, who is already getting recruited heavily, credited Davis for pushing her. “She taught me how to use the block better,” Mogridge said. “It was constantly a challenge.”

 

OFF-COURT ADVERSITY

Their ability to handle adversity went under the knife during the playoffs. In the week leading up to the Venice match, Zielinski’s 26-year-old son, Zach, suffered an aneurysm. While her team avenged the Venice loss, she was with her son in Gainesville as he recovered from open-heart surgery.

St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball players cheer as their coach holds up their state championship trophy Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.

Photographer: COURTESY

St. Thomas Aquinas volleyball players cheer as their coach holds up their state championship trophy Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.

Assistant Heather Trebbien led the Raiders while Zielinski tended to her son. After the match, both teams circled in prayer for Zachary. “What they did for me and my son and family was something special,” Zielinski said. “I’ll never forget this group, this team.”

With her son’s recovery going better than expected, she made the 258-mile drive to Fort Myers to get to her team’s final match against Tampa Plant. But Trebbien had told the team she wasn’t going to make it in time.

She arrived at 5:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. match. The team was in the middle of a film session, so the room was dark. She snuck in a side door and surprised them.

“Everyone did a double-take,” Silvestri said. “When she walked in, there was not one girl that didn’t cry. There was a sense of comfort that she was there.”


CONTINUE THE LEGACY

O’Loughlin said this year’s championship was likely her best, largely because of the grind. She said that her first two titles seemed almost easy, because St. Thomas Aquinas blew out nearly every foe those two years. This season seemed more of a fight.

That made it even more satisfying for the seniors. O’Loughlin will be playing college volleyball at Bucknell University. “For my friends on the team not playing any more, I told them that you’ve maxed out your volleyball career,” she said.

She also challenged her returning teammates, Mogridge, Meredith Dixon, Alexandra Knapik and Shannon Schulte.

“We’re here so you guys can be better than we were,” O’Loughlin said. “We want those freshmen and those juniors to be better than we were.”

St. Thomas Aquinas senior Sophia Davis goes for the kill during the Raiders' Class 8A state championship game against Tampa Plant Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.

Photographer: COURTESY

St. Thomas Aquinas senior Sophia Davis goes for the kill during the Raiders' Class 8A state championship game against Tampa Plant Nov. 17 in Fort Myers.


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