VENICE — Three years separate Ireland and Brighton Ferguson, but little else comes between the two Venice High volleyball players.
Both sisters stand at 5-foot-3 with almost the exact same weight, according to their mother, Julie Ferguson, and both made the varsity volleyball team at Venice as freshmen— a feat few others have accomplished, including current freshman outside hitter Charley Goberville.
“They’re really sweet to one another,” Venice volleyball coach Brian Wheatley said. “They definitely have each other’s backs. I think when one of them is struggling they do a really good job of trying to help the other one work through it.
“Ireland has been on the team for four years and we haven’t had a lot of freshmen on our varsity team. Now that Brighton has seen that, and she’s a freshman, she doesn’t act like it or play like it.”
After first investing their time in Irish dance performances, Julie Ferguson, a former high school volleyball player for Sarasota Christian, heard about local club volleyball from a friend, and steered her daughters toward that instead.
The sisters started playing together nine years ago in the Jelly’s beach volleyball program, but it wasn’t always easy for them.
“When they would partner for beach that was probably their roughest time as siblings,” Julie Ferguson said. “They had to fight through it. Some parents wouldn’t let their kids play together because they would fight, but I was like, ‘No, you don’t just run away from that. You have to figure that out.’
“It was a lot to work through, but it was worth it.”
After playing together for about five years their age gap eventually forced them to play on different teams.
The two still played together as much as they could, however, on the court in their backyard, or together with the high school team in the offseason as they grew older. As they learned how to better play together, it wasn’t long before their on-court differences were behind them.
“She’s my best friend,” Ireland said of Brighton. “We hang out all the time really. We’ll go on drives and just listen to music, or sometimes we’ll go get food. A lot of times, though, we’ll just sit in each other’s rooms and talk forever.
“We’re supportive, but when we’re on the court I still don’t want her to beat me out or anything.”
The Fergusons have so far helped Venice to a 16-7 record, the No. 23 ranking in FL according to MaxPreps and the No. 1 seed in next week’s district tournament.
Ireland has played as a defensive player — often leading the team in digs — as an outside hitter, using accurate hitting and touch passes to trick the defense, or as a setter when needed.
Brighton has been the starting libero while using a powerful serve to lead several scoring runs with aces.
Though Ireland has played more positions than Brighton so far — playing every position except middle hitter — there’s plenty of time for the freshman to catch up, something she’s gotten used to doing.
After first watching Ireland play for the varsity team from the stands as a 6th grader, Brighton was encouraged to follow suit.
“I was just thinking, ‘When I get to high school, I want to make varsity as a freshman, too,’” Brighton remembered thinking. “That definitely pushed me.
“It looked really scary when I was younger because there were a lot of people at the games. It can be intimidating, but I’ve gotten over it now.”
Starting as a freshman is rarely easy for athletes in high school sports, but the Fergusons have made the adjustment almost look effortless.
After Venice opened with a 2-3 start, the Fergusons helped the serve-receive and passing game
“We don’t put freshmen on our team unless we know they’re going to play and play quite a bit,” Wheatley said. “Most freshmen that make our team, which is single digits in 20 years, know they are there to get the job done and one day we expect them to carry our team.”
There’s still time for Brighton to worry about the next three years and time for Ireland to think about her commitment to Division-II Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas.
“It’s such a short window that they get to play together,” Julie said. “I’m embracing each stage of it and loving that they get to play together one last year.
“I’m soaking it in and absolutely enjoying it, but I also can’t wait to see what’s next for them.”