Team Tampa Bay's Take: A Volleyball Town: Tampa Bay Teams Excel at FHSAA State Volleyball Championships
By Joey Johnston
By Joey Johnston
With the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship headed to Amalie Arena on Dec. 14-17, that’s a pretty appropriate title for the Tampa Bay area, which will serve as the sport’s epicenter for the anticipated sold-out showcase event that will be shown on ESPN and ABC-TV.
But it’s nothing new.
Tampa Bay has ALWAYS been Volleyball Town — home to the state’s best club and high-school programs, which continually produce championship programs and elite players.
And it was never more true than last week, when two area teams — the Plant Panthers (Class 7A) and Carrollwood Day School Patriots (Class 3A) — captured state titles in dominating fashion.
Plant (25-3) swept past Winter Park (25-19, 25-21, 25-21) in Saturday night’s 7A final at Polk State College in Winter Haven, requiring just under 90 minutes to clinch the program’s 12th state volleyball championship. In five playoff matches, the Panthers dropped just one set (against Venice in a region-final showdown).
Meanwhile, CDS (31-2) rallied past Miami Westminster Christian (23-25, 25-23, 25-19, 29-27) to earn the program’s second state title (along with 2017). The Patriots’ playoff run included victories against Clearwater Central Catholic (defending state champion), Sarasota Cardinal Mooney (region finalist in 2022) and Berkeley Prep (a perennial power that handed CDS one of its two defeats this season).
Plant and CDS put exclamation marks on the area’s powerful statement, which sent two other programs (Bloomingdale in Class 6A and Academy of the Holy Names in Class 4A) to Final Four appearances. When Florida’s high-school volleyball postseason began, four of the state’s top-five ranked teams were from Tampa Bay.
“It’s absolutely one of the best years we’ve had around here,’’ said CDS coach Doug Chinchar, a former player at Ohio State University. “If you’re a great team in the Tampa Bay area, you’re definitely a contender for a state title. I think our teams can play anyone, any time, anywhere in the country. It’s that good.’’
“None of us in the Tampa Bay area ever have to travel far to find the top competition because it’s all right here,’’ Plant coach McKensie Herold said. “These girls always want the next level and the state championships, if not national championships with their club programs. There just aren’t many areas in the country who have what we have in Tampa Bay.’’
And there just aren’t many families like the Chinchar’s of CDS.
Doug Chinchar’s wife (and assistant coach) is the former Sarah Runka, who set the career assists record for USF from 1994-97, a glorious era when the Bulls had national rankings, NCAA Tournament bids and Conference USA championships.
Their daughters are the cornerstones of the CDS state championship team — Naomi, a senior setter who will play next season for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Lydia, a 6-foot-1 freshman outside hitter and top-10 national prospect of the Class of 2027 who’s being recruited by all of the nation’s volleyball powerhouse college programs.
“What we have here in Tampa is an ‘iron sharpens iron’ type of thing,’’ Naomi said. “If you’re the best team in Tampa, you’re likely the best team in the state. When you face that type of competition all the time, you’re naturally going to keep getting better.
“I’m sure it has helped me. I know it has helped my sister (Lydia). We both have been playing since an extremely young age and we just love this game. Especially now. Volleyball is the hot sport. Our sport is getting great appreciation.’’
At that college level, that has meant one of the most competitive, colorful volleyball seasons in recent memory, complete with a crowd of 92,003 watching Nebraska volleyball in a football stadium, enhanced television opportunities and a much-anticipated NCAA Tournament.
“At our matches, we got a lot more interest and attention,’’ Lydia said. “Volleyball is a fun sport to watch. The emotions and energy are what make it so special. I think it’s going to keep getting a larger audience and I’m excited to be part of it.’’
For CDS junior Sarah Dibbs-Frantz, a 6-2 middle blocker headed to VCU, and junior Mattea Casale, a libero who committed to Purdue, a bright volleyball future awaits in college. But playing for the Patriots — and winning a state title — won’t be forgotten.
“What this sport has done for me, I think, has set me up for a better life,’’ Dibbs-Frantz said. “As a freshman, I was a little awkward. I was not confident. Volleyball made me more comfortable with myself. I feel like I’m more friendly and more open with people. So for me, it’s more than just a sport.’’
“It means so much,’’ Casale said. “We’re making great memories and you can feel the support. I feel like volleyball is an easy sport to get behind and a fun sport to watch. I think it’s more than hype. I think the sport is growing and it’s going to stay at this level. It didn’t take much for me. Once I started playing, I fell in love with it. There’s nothing like the excitement of volleyball.’’
That’s especially true for the Plant Panthers.
Last season, Plant had match points against Venice in the region final, leading 24-20 in the fourth set. Venice rallied to capture the fourth, then won the match en route to a state title.
“We all cried on the bus ride home,’’ said senior outside hitter Maggie Dostic, who signed with Tennessee. “It was just really sad because we knew we wouldn’t be playing with our seniors again. We had school the next day and it was kind of like torture. I was just thinking about the game, like maybe I should’ve put more effort into it.’’
This season, Plant got its region final rematch against Venice and won in four sets, then dominated at the Class 7A Final Four.
“We trained hard all year for this (beating Venice),’’ said libero Bella Lee, who signed with Florida. “To see us come together and fight with our heart and soul, it was awesome.
“I’ve won AAU nationals before, but I’ve never felt anything more special than winning a state championship. In high season, you’re with your teammates every day and you get so close to them. Winning a state title with your best friends … there’s nothing better than that.’’
Lee said she’s eagerly anticipating mid-December when college volleyball will take over downtown Tampa. She hopes to experience those emotions when she plays for the Gators.
“It makes me super appreciative of the recruiting process because I’m super blessed to be going to Florida,’’ Lee said. “Seeing those college teams and the popularity of the sport, it makes me want to work even harder. There will be a lot of people watching in Tampa and that makes me super excited for the future. The big event is coming to our town.’’