By Matt Mauney | Associate Editor
With a team loaded with sophomores and juniors and no seniors, new Plant City High volleyball coach Jessica Thornton knew this would be a season of growth and education.
The Lady Raiders started the season 1-3, with close losses to Strawberry Crest (23-25, 19-25, 25-22, 15-25), Newsome (25-16, 22-25, 28-26, 11-25, 1-15) and Riverview (25-22, 19-25, 23-25, 17-25).
“All three of our losses are to three quality programs,” said Thornton, who took over as the head coach at Plant City after coaching at Cyprus Lake High (Fort Myers) last year. “I feel good about the way we played against that competition, and I feel that we’re equal to that competition.”
Thornton said her team must improve on mental toughness to be able to make it out on top of matches with teams such as Riverview (10-5).
The Lady Raiders followed that 1-3 start with back-to-back 3-0 wins against Tampa Bay Tech last week and Lennard Monday.
“I’m very happy with our defense and how hard we’re swinging,” Thornton said.
Junior Alex Arnold and sophomore Noelle Dietrich have led the team offensively this season. Arnold had 15 kills Monday against Lennard, while Dietrich posted 10. Sophomore Emily Fry was dominate on the serving end against Lennard, with seven aces in 11 attempts.
“This was a good testament to how focused we’re becoming,” Thornton said after the Lennard win.
The Tampa Bay Tech win brought the Lady Raiders’ Class 7A District 8 record even at 1-1. The team will have a chance to get over the .500 mark overall and in district play when Plant City hosts East Bay Thursday.
“That can set us up nicely for the following week,” Thornton said. “Anytime you can go 2-0 in one week, it’s a good thing to lead into the next week.”
The road ahead is a tough one for Plant City, a team comprising six sophomores and four juniors. The Lady Raiders will take on Plant and Brandon on the road and host Durant later in the season.
“We’ve still got some tough games on the schedule, and then the district tournament, but we feel like we’re on the upswing,” Thornton said.
Coming into the season, Thornton noted defense would be a key part in success this year. That has held true so far, but she said the offense also has shown improvement.
“I like how we’re running our offense,” she said.
In addition to Arnold and Dietrich on offense, Thornton pointed to strong play from setter Kelly Drake and libero Danielle Rodriguez.
“Even beyond that, I feel like we have some hitters on the front line that haven’t shown all they’re capable of yet,” she said.
Contact Matt Mauney at email@example.com.