Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Volleyball Team Blazes Own Trail with Victories; Girls Win Florida Regional

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Volleyball Team Blazes Own Trail with Victories; Girls Win Florida Regional

Article excerpt

Byline: Stephen Kindland, Clay County Line sports writer

Coach Brian Smith says it isn't easy to place 10 15-year-old girls on a volleyball team, work them hard during practice, travel long distances to play in tournaments and expect them to always get along with each other -- but they do.

"This team is probably as together as any team I've seen," Smith said of his squad, one of several age-group teams that play Junior Olympic volleyball under the local Blaze Volleyball Club name.

Smith's girls recently earned a free entry into next month's AAU national tournament in Orlando by winning the Florida Regional in March, becoming the first 15-under team in Northeast Florida to do so. They also have blazed quite a trail along the way, racking up a 31-3 AAU match record while winning five of seven tournaments, including the Disney Classic championship last month.

It was during the Disney Classic that this tight-knit group of young athletes experienced its defining moment, said Smith, now in his sixth year coaching for Blaze club teams.

After losing the first game 23-25 to Sarasota Whitesands and falling behind 16-23 in the second game of the best-of-three match, Smith's girls created a major momentum swing, reeling off seven straight points to move into a 23-all tie.

The Blaze went on to win that game, 28-26, then finished off their deflated opponents 15-6 in the deciding third game to capture the title.

The all-important momentum swing began after Smith called a timeout with his team on the brink of elimination. As he and his players watched tournament officials roll a cart holding first-place trophies toward the opposing team's bench, something happened deep within the hearts of his players, Smith said.

"That gave them extra motivation," he said. "They played like they were on a mission -- like they had something to prove."

It was a moment Smith had waited six years to witness.

"For this team it was huge," he said. "We used to be a laughingstock, but now teams fear us."

In volleyball, it's the underlying positive energy that creates the momentum. And positive energy cannot be created without good balance and team chemistry, Smith said. …

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