Competing as a competitive program in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference's statewide tournament for the first time, the Warriors bested the competition in the public schools bracket this past weekend in Tavares to bring home the hardware.
TAVARES — The West Orange girls volleyball team decided winning a state championship this past fall was so fun that they would try and do it again — this time, on the sand.
The West Orange High Beach Volleyball Club team, consisting largely of varsity and junior varsity players from Warriors’ indoor program, competed in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference’s 2018 Girls Beach Volleyball State Championships this past weekend.
After placing second at the regional round of the tournament a week earlier, the Warriors competed in the two-day state tournament at Hickory Point Recreation Park in Tavares. There, West Orange bested a field of seven teams in the public school bracket and went undefeated, defeating Merritt Island — a team it had lost to in the regional event just a week earlier — in the championship April 14.
The final match ended in exciting fashion, with the No. 3 and No. 4 teams for the Warriors both rallying from deficits to earn wins and give West Orange a 4-1 victory. Specifically, the Warriors’ No. 3 team of Erika Orsini and Lauren McCarthy put West Orange over the top by scoring a come-from-behind 15-12 win in the deciding third set of their individual match — moments after which they were mobbed by excited teammates.
“Me and my partner are very good under pressure — we’re best friends and we trust each other a lot,” explained Orsini. “We get really nervous, but our teammates are so supportive that it really helps us.”
Beach volleyball matches operate with five separate matches between two-person teams from each competing school — with teams featuring top players generally competing in descending order, similar to how high-school tennis operates.
With the matches between No. 1s, No. 2s and No. 5s ending quickly — two of which went in favor of the Warriors — that meant that the overall match would be decided by the No. 3 and No. 4 teams. Though West Orange needed to win just one of those matches to win, the Warriors trailed at different points in both matches.
That both teams rallied for victories provided an exciting exclamation point on the experience for West Orange.
“With how this is setup, the 3s and 4s and 5s can be the ones who determine who is going to win,” West Orange coach Alex Schmitt said. “We had our 3s and 4s step up to the challenge with all the pressure on them.”
Growing the game
The SSAC was holding the tournament for just the second time, and it was the Warriors’ first appearance as a competitive beach volleyball team.
Previously, the West Orange beach volleyball club had been strictly recreational — beach volleyball, after all, is not a sport sanctioned by the FHSAA.
However, when first-year athletic director Jerry Shafer came to West Orange from Leesburg High — which had its volleyball team compete in the SSAC’s inaugural league and tournament in 2017 — momentum was now in place for the Warriors to give a competitive schedule a shot.
Following the indoor season in the fall, the Warriors began practicing twice a week in January, with several girls receiving a crash-course in the nuances of the game as played in the sand.
“They had to learn the different movements, the defensive schemes and the different spots on the court that are open,” Schmitt said. “Little things that are different between indoor and beach that you don’t really notice until you start playing at a competitive level.”
The SSAC’s tournament and league have grown year-over-year, with a conference official noting that participation has doubled, with significant growth in the interest of public school programs. There are also several other schools who have expressed interest in competing in 2019.
For someone such as Kaeli Crews, a junior at West Orange who is committed to South Carolina for beach volleyball, it was an exciting opportunity. Crews was part of the Warriors’ state championship team in indoor volleyball this past fall, and she says it was a rewarding experience to get to share a season in the beach game with her teammates.
“This was such a big deal to me just because it’s my sport and I love it,” Crews said. “It’s just interesting to see how big the tournament has gotten from year to year. It’s incredible to see how many girls want to play the sport and get their feet in the sand.”