The Springstead Eagles (18-8) gutted out a 3-1 win over the Pinellas Park Patriots (14-12) at Greg O’Connell Court in the first round of the 2023 Girls Volleyball District Tournament. All four sets in this 6A District 9 quarterfinal were heavily contested. The two squads had already met once before in a weekend tournament earlier this season and the Eagles defeated the Patriots 2-0 during their first showdown.
With Springstead also having won 14 of their last 16 contests and Pinellas having had a solid albeit up-and-down season, it appeared the Red, White, and Blue had the edge. It is much more challenging to have to beat a team twice, but Head Coach Andrea Gracey’s Eagles found a way to get it done on Monday night.
“I think we are just figuring it out,” Eagles Head Coach Andrea Gracey said. “We have a super young team. We obviously have some critical seniors. So, the younger ones are just learning from the seniors just to continue to build the legacy that we have. I think we’re used to playing just a different kind of level, so we’re just trying to figure out how do we control the volleyball game at every single minute.”
The visitors led nearly wire-to-wire in the opening frame, but the Eagles were undaunted. Trailing 15-10 midway through the match, the Patriots began committing a variety of errors, from serving the ball into the net to hitting the ball out of bounds, as well as a double hit. Key late scores by Senior Emily Miller and Sophomore Kat Schrade helped the Eagles pull even with Pinellas. Schrade logged a pair of kills after the team fell into the five-point deficit, while Miller recorded all four of her kills of that set as well as a block. One of Miller’s scores gave the home team their first lead of the night at 23-22 and forced a Pinellas timeout. A duo of Patriots errors sealed the deal in Springstead’s victory in set one.
The second frame was similar to the first, except the score was closer throughout much of the match. There were six lead changes, and neither team led by more than two points until the Eagles pulled away for the five-point victory at the very end. Miller’s heroics shone throughout the set once again, but Patriots Junior Brianna Ferreira proved a strong foil to the Eagles senior. Scoring four kills to go with her five from set one, she commanded respect while attacking. Miller recorded five more kills to go with another block. An error, an ace, and a block gave the home team 3 of the last 4 points to finish the frame 25-20. The third period would be much rougher for the home team, though.
“I think in volleyball, there’s always that mental aspect,” Coach Gracey said. “I think the girls get a little bit comfortable and with that comfortableness, they just think that the opportunities may all of a sudden snowball into giving the other team the momentum. That’s exactly what happened, but we’ve been working on that all season.”
The only set in which the Eagles led by more than a couple before the very end was, ironically, the only frame they dropped on Monday. Up 20-16, the home team began to commit more errors while Coach Alundeth Bounthisavath’s Patriots zeroed in. A pair of late kills by Ferreira helped to salt the set away as the visitors absconded with the win in the third period, 25-23.
The difficulties carried into the final frame for the home team. Miller and company had to shake it off in a hurry as they faced their largest deficit of the night. Trailing 19-13, Springstead outscored their opponents 12-2 over the final stretch. Miller knocked down 8 kills in the process to take the set 25-21 and help her team advance to the semifinals.
“[Emily Miller] continues to be a stud for us,” said the Eagles’ coach. “She really gets people motivated, but I think as you’ve seen her perform throughout the year, now you see other girls rising up to that level and definitely executing. I mean, Emily is irreplaceable, but she has definitely left more than just her stats for this program… When she’s [balling out], other girls want to be a part of that.”
While the Patriots’ season ended on Monday, Springstead will advance to the semifinals on Tuesday night. The Eagles will have their “backs up against the wall” as they are scheduled to host top-seeded Sunlake, but Coach Gracey feels that the Seahawks have had comparable performances against similar opponents this season. Last comes the belief.
“I tell the girls all the time, ‘any given team can lose on any given day,’” Springstead’s coach said. “How are you preparing? How are you ready for it? But how are you visualizing it and believe that we can beat them and play district finals here on Thursday?”