By VINNIE PORTELL
The Venice volleyball team has won five state championships and established a reputation of excellence under head coach Brian Wheatley, but it’s never had to replace a class quite like last year’s seniors.
In total, 10 seniors graduated from the Lady Indians team this past spring after winning a state title in 2017 and finishing in the state semifinals last season. But the team has been hard at work this summer, hitting the courts and weight room as early as 7 a.m. and competing in tournaments all around the state to get their growing pains out of the way early.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Wheatley said. “It’s kind of fresh and new to a lot of them, so we’re teaching them how to work. There’s a secret to winning. So we’re trying to embed that into the new kids. A lot of it is in their heads, there’s a mentality to it. We’re trying to build that foundation and we’re being patient.
“We’re trying to take last year’s JV team and bring them up to varsity, so there will be some growing pains pretty quick for them.”
Though the losses are what stand out when thinking of the 2019 Indians, not everyone is gone from last year’s team. Key contributors Sadie Kluner, Gabbie Atwell and Ireland Ferguson return this season intent on keeping Venice’s tradition of winning alive.
“We’ve still been figuring out everything because it’s a brand new team,” Kluner said. “I feel like last year, everyone was so together because we’ve been playing with each other for so long. So we’re still getting adjusted, but I think we’re on the right path.”
Kluner and Atwell will be outside hitters for Venice while Ferguson will shift to the back row to fortify the defense. Last season, Kluner recorded the second-most kills for Venice (402) and looks to be the Lady Indians’ go-to player alongside Atwell.
Despite having to run with nearly an entirely new team in 2019, Wheatley is keeping the opponents up to par for Venice as he’s scheduled teams such as McGill-Toolen (30th in the nation in 2018), and Hoover (9th in its state in 2018) of Alabama. Plant, which finished 5th in Florida and lost to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 8A state championship, will also make a trip to the TeePee this fall.
And that’s all before mentioning the annual Battle at the Beach Tournament (Sept. 13-14) that hosts the best teams in the state. The Lady Indians will also have a unique opportunity this year as they travel to Las Vegas for the Durango Classic (Sept. 20-21).
“I’m really excited about Vegas, I’ve never been there,” Ferguson said. “I’m also excited to bond with this new team. We all get along really well with each other. I love to spend time with my teammates.
“We went up to an AAU tournament this summer and it was fun to connect with them and stay up late talking, getting to know them.”
But the Lady Indians still have to find out how they play together when the pressure is on. That all begins on Tuesday, Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. as Venice hosts Bishop McLaughlin Catholic (30-1 in 2018) at the TeePee in a preseason match.
“It’s going well,” Wheatley said of his team’s adjustment. “I like this team. They work hard, they listen to our coaches and they’re doing everything we ask of them.
“We’re counting on a bunch of these new players. We’re looking for some of them to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.”