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Tough economy touches North Bay Juniors Club

School budget cuts may soon force the club to find new gyms to play and practice in.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002


Volleyball is one of the county's premier sports. Hudson, River Ridge and Zephyrhills have all made final four appearances in recent years, and every year the county sends its share of teams deep into the playoffs players into college on athletic scholarships.

The North Bay Juniors Volleyball Club, founded five years ago by Saint Leo University volleyball coach Bill Lent and River Ridge volleyball coach Heidi Castelamare, has helped incubate and develop a great deal of that talent.

But, like everything else school-related, the club is suffering in this age of budget cuts.

The problem is that North Bay may soon be unable to use county gyms to train and compete in.

The Pasco County School District is facing a $6.4-million loss of state aid, forcing a hiring freeze, the loss of 10 central office jobs and a myriad of other cuts.

Those cuts have had to come from everywhere, and that is why the money to keep county facilities open for North Bay may no longer be there.

North Bay will continue to use the Saint Leo University gym, and Lent still hopes to be able to find a gym or two in the area to use for the club's twice-weekly sessions.

In the interim, North Bay has had to undergo cuts of its own.

Castelamare is no longer associated with the slimmed-down North Bay. Instead of playing 50-60 kids in team age-groups of 12, 14, 16 and 18-years-old, North Bay will field teams in age groups 15, 17 and two 16-year-old groups.

Lent just hopes the club and the service it provides can survive.

"You get better coaching in volleyball at the club level," Lent said. "It's hard to find someone who's coached the sport before. Some people don't actually realize there's offense and defense."

Nor do some realize how long it takes for a team to learn to play together. It takes longer than just a few weeks before the start of volleyball season for a team to jell, or for players to raise their level of skill.

For these purposes, basketball and baseball both have offseason leagues. Volleyball has club teams.

The best players in the nation regularly attend prominent club programs. The Tampa Bay area, with its concentration of volleyball talent, is no exception.

"When you get deep into the playoffs, more than 60 percent of those girls are in club," Castelamare said.

Lent rattled off a list of the area's best teams: "You look at the Berkeley Preps and the Tampa Preps and the Plants and the Durants, they're all club players. All the most successful players are the ones who play year-round."

Just take a look at this season's most successful Pasco County teams.

The entire River Ridge starting six, including Ali Bigger, Dawn Conner and Rachel Osterholt, played for North Bay, and the Royal Knights won the Sunshine Athletic Conference title.

Hudson had Kelly Aguis and Jackie Law, and the Cobras won a district title.

Paula Clausnitzer and Jamie Freund of Wesley Chapel also played, leading the Wildcats to a second consecutive district title.

Pasco made its first-ever playoff appearance, and it's no coincidence that Lauren Dillard and Erica Flicker both played for North Bay.

Among the advantages of playing for North Bay, Lent said, is the experience gained by playing from January to May.

"A lot of our kids in junior high school have played as many matches as some high school players have in their careers," Lent said.

Another advantage is the high-caliber of play.

"It's essentially an all-star volleyball team," Lent said. "It doesn't matter how good one player on your team is, it does matter how good your hitters are, how good your passers are and how good your setters are.

"In high school, there's going to be a lot of breakdowns. In club situations, you get to play in a system every time."

Historically, the county's best have all gotten better at North Bay, which has helped 14 local players land college athletic scholarships.

"Collegiate and high school seasons are at the same time," Lent said. "Coaches don't have time to watch high school matches."

But when junior nationals roll around, coaches can scout hundreds of volleyball players at one time, and North Bay has consistently ranked in the top 10 in its region every year.

Lent said North Bay is a non-profit organization, and he considers it a bargain compared to other club teams in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

North Bay's fee is $1,100, compared to some club teams that charge as much as $3,000. Plus, North Bay is the only Pasco County-based club team.

"I think for the coaching staff we have you can't get a better deal," Lent said.

That staff includes Lent, assistant Saint Leo coach Dan Girleanu, the captain of the Romanian National team and a bronze-medal winner in the 1980 Olympics, and Land O'Lakes coach Brian Kachurak, who played men's club at Penn State.

MOVIN' ON UP

The North Bay Juniors Volleyball Club has helped develop some of the area's top players. Just look at who's moved on to play at the collegiate level:

CENTRAL: Laura Moore, Florida Southern.

GULF: Laura O'Brien, St. John's River Community College.

HUDSON: Alison Baker, Florida Southern.

LAND O'LAKES: Jessica McCoy, Florida Tech; Megan McLaughlin, Pasco-Hernando Community College.

RIDGEWOOD: Julie Grassin, Barton; Tara Pagliaro, Saint Leo; Jen Sessa, Saint Leo.

RIVER RIDGE: Lundy Pixton, Florida Tech.; Erin Pixton, Florida Southern; Brie Redfield, PHCC; Ashlea Thomas, Winthrop; Brandy Young, PHCC.

ZEPHYRHILLS: Loraine Clausnitzer, Lenoir Rhyne.

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