When Caleb Kwekel first walked into the TeePee at Venice High School last year, boys volleyball coach Brian Wheatley knew he had something special on his hands.
“I knew he was an outstanding beach player who is highly ranked,” Venice coach Brian Wheatley said of first meeting Kwekel. “When you have a 6-foot-4 freshman walking in the door who you know is a pretty seasoned beach player, there’s gonna be some stuff there to work with. We were very excited when he and his brother came into the gym.”
Caleb, along with his older brother, Stephen, are sons of professional beach volleyball player Calvin Kwekel and were just what Wheatley needed in the inaugural season for his team.
Standing well over 6-foot and possessing years of beach volleyball experience, the Kwekels were an ideal fit for a team with little-to-no experience in the sport.
It’s been over a year since the brothers debuted at Venice High and their impact on the team is easy to see. Though Stephen has since graduated high school and has become an electrician, Caleb has led Venice to a 16-5 record and the 8th-best ranking in the state, according to MaxPreps.
“He’s a legitimate Division-I setter,” Wheatley said. “He’s got great hands, he’s got awesome court awareness. He knows volleyball like the back of his hand. He’s been a game changer for us because the setter is probably your most important position on the court.
“You can have the best hitters in the world, but if you don’t have a setter to get it to them, it’s not gonna make a difference.”
The signs of a special season came early for the Indians, as they dispatched Southwest — the current No. 3 team in Florida — and Cardinal Gibbons, last year’s state champions, in a preseason tournament back in February.
Now, just one year after learning the sport and finishing 11-7, Venice has become a top contender in the state.
“Last year our ball control was pretty bad, and my setting wasn’t as great, either,” Kwekel said. “We’re all improving as a team. This year we have better ball control and we got Josh (Kinker) to join the team. He’s super helpful because he can hit it so hard.”
Kwekel has played no small part in Venice’s ascension among the state volleyball ranks, as his near-perfect setting has set up hitters Phil Price and Kinker to deliver powerful blows upon the opposition.
Now standing at 6-foot-4, his unique height at the setter position has given Venice an advantage that many high school teams don’t have — blocking shots at the net and putting the perfect touch on lobs to his teammates.
“He gives me a lot of confidence,” Kinker said. “I know he’s gonna put the ball where I need it pretty much every time. That helps my mindset. It’s something you don’t have to worry about, ever.
“Because he’s so tall, his release point is higher, which makes it easier. He doesn’t have to push it as hard.”
While the Indians have beaten nearly everyone in their path this season, two district teams have given them trouble — No. 1 seeded Tampa Bay HEAT and No. 2 seeded Celebration High.
Venice lost both of its first matches to these two schools, but the Indians’ steady progression has them thinking things will be different when they meet again in next week’s district tournament.
“The HEAT and Celebration are really good teams. I think we have a lot of potential, though,” Kwekel said. “One of our coaches was saying that we have a lot of growth left still and these guys are at their peak because they’ve all been playing together for years. They’ve all been playing since a young age.”
This past week, Kwekel and the Indians proved they can play with the best in the district — defeating the HEAT, 3-2, (25-18, 25-22, 26-28, 19-25, 17-15) on their home court.
So when the team travels to Kissimmee on Tuesday to play Celebration in the district tournament semifinals, Kwekel and the Indians will look to prove why they’re more than just the new kids on the block.