- May 17, 2023
As soon as the ball hit the floor of the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Windermere’s dream season, which saw them break milestone after milestone, came to a screeching halt.
As teammates from the Plant High School’s volleyball squad jumped on one another in celebration — completing a comeback — the Wolverines burned the image into their brains. They were so close to achieving what no Windermere team had done before them — claiming a state championship.
They were one set away from doing just that.
In what was truly an all-time classic, Windermere and Plant split the first two sets by almost identical scores of 25-23 in the first and 25-22 in the second. Windermere then took the lead by winning the third set 25-22 to go ahead 2-1 on the scoreboard. The game had been a hard-fought, back-and-forth match, with neither team getting much of a jump on the other. This was the Wolverines’ big chance.
One more victory, and they would be state champions.
Back home in Windermere, fans piled into Gator’s Dockside in Lakeside Village to bear witness to what they hoped would be history in the making. With every point scored, the noise grew louder. The anticipation was thick as Windermere’s fans waited for one last victory. Then, it would really turn into a party.
But the volleyball gods are a cruel bunch. Even after all the blessings they had bestowed on Windermere this season, they seemed to have decided to sit this one out.
Down to its last set, Plant caught fire at the end and took the last two sets in convincing fashion. They won the fourth set 25-14 and the fifth by a score of 15-9. The Wolverines took five straight potential match points in the fifth set to keep themselves alive, but once that final ball hit the floor for the Panthers’ 15th point, it was over.
“It was a great game against a tough opponent,” head coach Daniel “Omi” Fuentes said of Plant. “That’s a high level of volleyball over (at Plant). … Even when they were down, they never quit.”
Even with a gut-wrenching loss like that one, Fuentes realized the magnitude of what that appearance meant to the school community.
“It’s rough when you’re so close, and you’re unable to close that, but we’re thankful for the opportunity that we got,” Fuentes said. “It was a dream season; a magic season.”
Despite coming so close to winning the state championship, the Wolverines already were record-breakers before they stepped onto the court in Fort Myers. And on the long, three-hour bus ride back to Windermere, they still were record-breakers.
They had gone where no other Windermere team had gone before in its short, four-year history.
Prior to the 2021 season, the furthest Windermere High School volleyball had gone was the regional semifinals — twice. Although that was respectable for a new program, it was only a matter of time before the Wolverines set their sights on something bigger.
That was not going to be easy — former coach Layla West left to take another job in the Orlando area before the 2021 season. West had been the Wolverines’ coach since they first started as a program in 2017.
Not only did the team have to adjust to a new leader, but it also had to deal with burgeoning expectations for a team rising through the ranks into the upper echelon of volleyball teams in Florida.
Fuentes recognized the challenge in front of him but was also excited by it. It also helped that his team understood the situation and did its best to be easy on the new coach — even if it meant having to play positions the girls weren’t accustomed to playing before.
“Everybody understood what their roles were,” Fuentes said. “For me, it was a great experience, because there was some fear that they would not listen, or they would not play another position for me. But it was a huge eye-opener during the season. I never had any opposition from them.”
And the Wolverines rode that trust all the way through a regular season during which they set the best record in school history at 23-3. They defeated Olympia in districts to win the district title then proceeded to roll through Mandarin and DeLand in the state playoffs before facing Lake Brantley in regionals. Windermere defeated the Patriots 3-1 to claim the regional championship for the first time ever.
Next up on the list was Jupiter, and after a five-set classic, the Wolverines made it to the state championship.
Fuentes said he felt something in the air on the bus ride back from that game.
“That was the furthest point we had gone before, but they wanted more,” Fuentes said. “My favorite part was the way they celebrated that accomplishment.”
Next year, with much of the team still around, Fuentes hopes to use the experience the team gained from going five sets with Plant in the state championship to help them in the playoffs and get that state championship they came one set away from winning.
But for now, he appreciates just how big of a moment this was for his team, and the program.