LAND O' LAKES - Since the eve of the volleyball season, River Ridge coach Heidi Castelamare has emphasized the importance of a district championship.
It wasn't necessarily about winning the program's 11th district title, although that isn't a bad thing. Collecting a district crown was more about the path of less resistance.
'Honestly, our region is set up so it's not as tough as it's been in the past,' Castelamare said in August. 'We used to hit Plant and Gainesville and those types of teams and now East Lake is not in our region, Palm Harbor, Clearwater, Plant, they're all in a different region. Lake Howell graduated their two top hitters and they're usually in our region. Lake Gibson lost their coach, she went somewhere else. So it's all kind of falling in line.'
The Royal Knights (22-5) started the process last week by defeating Land O' Lakes in the Class 5A-District 7 championship game, 19-25, 25-8, 28-26, 25-23, and will host Armwood (13-3), losers of the 5A-8 district, tonight at 7.
An additional feather in the River Ridge cap is the size of the gym. Opponents are typically thrown off by the depth perception due to the large facility, which in turn creates serving and hitting errors.
'Our gym is such a huge homecourt advantage because people who haven't been here before ... the depth perception on the court alone draws off a lot of people,' Castelamare said, 'and running down to shag balls every now and then gets a little frustrating as well.'
Land O' Lakes (17-10) will travel to Brandon tonight for it's first regional quarterfinal appearance since 1992. If the Gators beat Brandon and River Ridge topples Armwood, it will set up a rubber match between Land O' Lakes and River Ridge Nov. 6 in the Regional Semifinals.
According to Land O' Lakes coach Michelle Griffin, her team is doing something they haven't been accustomed to doing in the recent past - come back from adversity.
In that district championship game against River ridge, Land O' Lakes made Game 3 and 4 very tough for the royal Knights. In Game 3, following a timeout by the Gators, Land O' Lakes outscored River Ridge 11-4 to tie the game, 20-20. In Game 4, the Gators never fell behind by more than 3 points and held a 21-20 advantage after being behind 18-15.
'I think the girls had a learning experience out there. We got down for a little while, but then they proved ourselves,' Griffin said. 'We were down by about eight or 10 points, but then we came back. That's something in the past they've been unable to do.
'They're still growing, so that's good.'
Another team making its way to the postseason is Zephyrhills (23-4). In preparation for Wednesday night's match at Orlando Bishop Moore, Zephyrhills coach Tiffany Bibby has brought in tall volunteers and basketball players to help block shots against her squad. At times, there have been ten volunteers against six Bulldogs.
'I've heard plenty of stories about Bishop Moore and I've seen then in several different sports, so I know they have a very good athletic program,' Bibby said. 'I got game tape on them and I've seen them and they're phenomenal, so I'm trying to simulate as best we can what it's going to be like.'
Bibby is convinced her team's underdog status will aid in her team's performance. In addition, this is territory neither Zephyrhills senior - Kristen Arnold, Jessica Davis, Jessica McCall nor Kayla Wright - have experienced.
'If we go in that game and play our hearts out and we do a good job and my kids have the best game of their life, I'm going to be very satisfied whether we win or lose,' Bibby said. 'That's all you can ask for.'
What coaches likely will be asking their team for is another game. As long as they are redundant, it means the further their squad has advanced in the playoffs.
That's a nagging no one minds.