Scenes from a state championship: Volleyball in Kissimmee

Sports enthusiasts in Jacksonville often think that football reigns alone in the area’s high school sports scene. Yet thousands of athletes compete in more than a dozen sports far from the football field. The Florida High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body of high school sports, classifies sports into fall, winter, and spring categories. Fall sports include bowling, cross country, football, golf, swimming and diving, and volleyball. Winter sports include basketball, competitive cheerleading, soccer, and wrestling.  The academic season ends with the spring sports of baseball, flag football, lacrosse, softball, tennis, track, and weightlifting. Thus, athletes have an opportunity to wear their school colors with pride from August through May.

No matter the sport, high school athletes envision themselves achieving the same goal: lifting the trophy at the state championship. Final matches or state meets mean long bus rides, unfamiliar hotels, and games in venues often designed with something else in mind. The FHSAA scheduled its volleyball finals, held from Nov. 11-15, for the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee. The arena, best known for its rodeo events and concerts, provided spacious surroundings radically different from the compact gyms familiar to most high school squads. With wide open spaces behind the court, sky-high ceilings, and an ominous black curtain shrouding three sides of the playing surface, players easily might have thought they were playing the biggest match of their lives in a medieval castle or an Old World opera house. But no one has time to pause and survey the surroundings – not with a long-awaited state championship on the line.

The Steinbrenner and St. Thomas Aquinas squads compete at the FHSAA volleyball tournament in Kissimmee.

The Steinbrenner and St. Thomas Aquinas squads compete at the FHSAA volleyball tournament in Kissimmee.

For those who win it all, the memories last a lifetime. Last week, Bishop Kenny’s girls volleyball team traveled to Kissimmee with sky-high expectations (a 29-1 record and a #11 national ranking) but a history of disappointment (five straight eliminations in the semifinal round). This time, they surmounted their traditional final-four hurdle to meet Merritt Island in the Class 5A championship Friday afternoon. The Crusaders had unpleasant memories of these opponents after getting knocked out by Merritt Island just two years ago. In one hour and eight minutes, they washed those painful memories away. Before an enthusiastic crowd, Bishop Kenny swept the Mustangs aside in a 25-10, 25-18, 25-17 victory that captured the school’s second state volleyball championship to go with a previous trophy from 1999.

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