TALLAHASSEE — After losing almost every starter from last season, few would have guessed that the Venice volleyball team could make it back to the final four for the seventh time in the past eight seasons.
Even as recently as a month ago, when the Indians (17-13) were coming off a five-game losing streak, it was hard to envision the team making much noise in the playoffs. But despite the doubts, Venice found itself waking up early on Saturday morning to make the five-hour bus ride up to play Leon High in Tallahassee.
The Lions, ranked No. 1 in Florida, looked every bit the part as they led the Indians from start to finish in a 3-0 sweep to move on to the state championship and end Venice’s season.
“If you don’t attack this team, they’re gonna pound it down your throat,” Venice coach Brian Wheatley said of Leon. “We made some kind of dumb mistakes in Game 1 and I wish we could have had those back.
“But this game is really icing on the cake in a way for this team. For where we were at to where we are now, to win a district and a region. Most teams have already had their banquets. Really, what a gratifying season to see these guys come so far.”
The Indians struggled with the speed and power of the Lions’ front row hitters as they couldn’t get into a rhythm offensively. Senior outside hitter Sadie Kluner (9 kills) — typically good for 15-20 kills — had few opportunities to get going.
Though Venice regained some momentum at times with its middle hitters Kiki Montgomery and Paden Keller combining for 17 kills, it wasn’t enough to throw Leon off its game.
“We knew coming in that Leon had a really strong team this year,” Wheatley said. “We were gonna have to really play great and they were probably gonna have to play down a little bit.
“We actually played pretty good. They’re just that strong. There’s a pretty good chance they’re gonna win the state this year.”
Down 0-2 with their season on the line, the Indians didn’t back down as they trailed, 19-22 on the brink of elimination and tied the set up at 24-24. However, they couldn’t hold on as the Lions bounced back for two quick points to finish off the sweep and move on to the state championship.
This year marks the fifth straight season that Leon has made it to the Final Four. Though the Lions don’t have a state title to show for it yet — losing to Venice in 2017 in their only other trip to the state final — they’re now one match away from changing that.
“I just think this year we’re a physical team,” Leon coach Angie Strickland said. “We had a couple of freshmen starters last year and we have some seniors this year who were juniors last year.
“I just don’t think they thought it would be their last time last year, so they didn’t have that sense of urgency. This year, some of those top kids are seniors and I think now is just the right time.”
Though the loss marked the end of Venice’s season, it was a year of surpassing expectations for a young team that will return all of its players with the exception of seniors Gabbie Atwell and Kluner — giving several of the players one or two more chances at winning a state championship.
“The whole season has been a great learning experience for all of us, including the coaches,” Wheatley said. “I’m just really proud of my group. I’m proud of these players, the work they put in this year and the belief they had in us to take them here.”