The Winter Park volleyball team hopes last year’s successes will propel them to greatness this year.
In sports — much like in life — how you handle adversity says a lot about your character.
In the case of the Winter Park volleyball team, it’s safe to say that these girls have the truest of grit.
After the successes of last season — during which the Wildcats won more than 20 games and claimed both metro and district titles — it’s needless to say there was a lot of momentum going into this season. Then, adversity struck early.
Senior setter and leader Autumn Little-Phillips was hospitalized with a non-disclosed health issue, while sophomore outside hitter Mariana Olivares-Cely has been out of town and due to return later this week.
“We’ve had some kids step up and (do) a great job to kind of fill the role there — it’ll be a challenge tomorrow (Sept. 5) against University, I think, without her,” said head coach Stephanie Gibson.
Although the loss of two key players such has Little-Phillips and Olivares-Cely would have rattled other teams, the Wildcats have put things together early and started the season 3-1 (1-0 in district).
And a large part of the strong start comes from the players stepping up when called upon by Gibson.
A leader in her own right, Emily Jordan — a four-year starter for the Wildcats — has helped shape this year’s team and has been a leader on and off the court. In the Wildcats’ 3-1 (25-8, 25-14, 21-25, 25-17) win over East River, Jordan alone racked up 16 kills. She followed that game with eight kills against Lake Highland Prep and a whopping 26 kills in a five-set nail biting win against Apopka.
“She carried the load for us in that match with 26 kills,” Gibson said. “And we were really trying to figure it out, because we just found out we weren’t going to have Mariana in that match, so to kind of fill that role we put one lineup in and didn’t like that, and ended up changing it.”
Her total of 70 kills and .327 hitting currently leads the team and helped bolster the Wildcats.
But this team isn’t a one-woman show. This year’s experienced squad — packed with nine upperclassmen — is full of big hitters and players who can do it all.
In junior setter Hannah Musante, Gibson has a utility player who can do just about anything on the court. Her 12 aces so far are a team high, while her 52 assists have helped set up the offense. She also has picked up 21 digs.
Another ace on the team is Olivares-Cely, who — despite missing game time — has been incredibly productive with 10 aces, 18 kills and a whopping 54 digs.
Olivares-Cely’s collection of digs is second best to junior libero Ava DiPaolo — who currently leads the team with 67.
These core girls, and others such as junior middle hitter Evelyn Byington (28 kills, .300 hitter, 12 blocks), senior outside hitter Hannah Green (eight aces, 26 kills, 38 digs) and sophomore setter Alice Montebugnoli (75 assists, 31 digs, nine aces) have set the tone early for the Wildcats. It’s also helped that this team, Gibson said, has come together for each other.
“The girls — their work ethic and team chemistry have been fantastic,” Gibson said. “And these kids are not shy about hard work, and they understand what that means.”
Although the Wildcats still have some kinks to work out — such as finding consistency in the serve and pass game, which Gibson thinks could be a real strength for her team — the coaching staff at Winter Park believes this year could be another good one for their girls.
Fixing those little things and running with what’s been working will be keys to the Wildcats making their way through a district filled with talented teams.
“Our district is tough — any one of four teams could win it, and there is an argument for University whose gotten better every year,” Gibson said. “It’s a benefit, because you’re playing good teams — there’s not really going to be a night off.”