Being able to face some of the toughest teams in the state and nation makes the tiring tournament worth it.
By EMILY NIPPS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2002
TAMPA -- East Lake struggled at the Berkeley Premier Invitational, and understandably so.
The Eagles were exhausted from having to play seven matches in one week, with five of their six losses on the season coming within a few days of each other.
Plus, they admitted, their minds were elsewhere.
"I do not normally play," junior outside hitter Shardae Thorne said, "with my hair like this."
On Saturday, four players had been up since 6 a.m. getting their hair done, only to turn around and play some of their best volleyball of the season. East Lake's homecoming dance was just a few hours after the Eagles' final match against Jacksonville Bishop Kenny, which they lost 6-15, 15-6, 15-13.
East Lake (13-6) finished 14th out of 16 teams, but coach Terry Small could only see the positives from playing in a tournament that featured the top teams in the state, including some ranked in the top 50 nationally by Student Sports.
"As long as the girls can keep focused on why we're in this tournament, we can learn from it," Small said.
"This is the part of the season when we'll get tested the most. We just need to know that we could win a lot of these matches. Every match was extremely close, and each game could have gone either way."
There were few surprises at the tournament's top, though. Top seed and national No. 13 Boca Raton Olympic Heights (18-0) defeated second seed and national No. 19 Plant (19-1) 15-5, 15-12 for the championship. It was the Lions' fourth consecutive title.
Host Berkeley Prep (19-2) finished third, beating 2001 Class 4A state runner-up Merritt Island 10-15, 15-7, 15-11. Tampa Prep (12-4) and Durant (10-5) finished seventh and 11th, respectively.
This was East Lake's second invitation to the Berkeley Premier -- the Eagles finished seventh last year -- and Small said it was a welcomed challenge to the schedule and "an honor to be at this level." East Lake, which made it to the 5A state semifinals last year, lost all three matches in pool play and won one bracket match, an easy 15-6, 15-0 victory over Jacksonville Bolles.
While the weekend was rough on the players, including outside hitter and homecoming court candidate Melissa Roberts, Small said the Eagles walked away a stronger team.
"As Melissa said, they're sick of losing," Small said. "They want to do better, and they're motivated by it. You never know what's going to happen at this tournament."