Things are looking up
By FRANK PASTOR
SPRING HILL -- A fairy tale was unfolding before Diana Lossing's eyes, the same one her coach had envisioned almost exactly a year earlier.
"A Cinderella story," Springstead coach Steve Davey had called it.
At the time, Davey was referring to the possibility of the 1-23 Eagles upsetting defending district champ Lecanto in the opening match of last season's Class 4A, District 7 tournament.
But Springstead lost that match and the 23 that followed, stretching its winless streak to 41 over two seasons.
On Oct. 28, Lossing, a junior setter and co-captain, sensed something magical was about to happen as Springstead took the court for the second game of its district play-in match against Lecanto. The Eagles had beaten the Panthers 15-11 in the first game, only the fourth they had won all season.
As Eagles fans rose to their feet and sophomore hitter Cara Cagan exhorted her teammates with cries of, "I have a feeling," Springstead believed this was the night it would end the streak.
"Coach Davey used to call us a 'fairy tale team,"' Lossing said. "We'd lose all our games and come to districts and kill everyone. I actually saw that happening when we beat Lecanto in that first game."
Alas, Lecanto came back, winning the final two games 15-10, 15-7 to send Springstead to its 24th loss of the year, 42nd straight and 48th in 49 matches.
As his players left the court, Davey struggled to express his feelings for them.
"I'm very proud of all the girls and am proud of the team," he said. "I'm sorry they have to leave with a record that doesn't show all the effort that they put into it."
Or the progress that they made. When Davey, an assistant under Lionel Thornton, was named head coach two years ago, he took over a team that had gone 9-19 the year before. His goal was simple: to develop a winning program.
Springstead came close in Davey's first year, finishing 9-11. But the team lost six seniors and entered 2001 with only a few seniors and no juniors.
Work on the gymnasium floor forced the team off its home court for the first three weeks of the preseason. By the time the Eagles returned, only four practice days remained.
Springstead stumbled out of the gate, losing its first nine matches and 23 of 24 (beating only South Sumter) before falling to Lecanto in the opening round of the district tournament.
This season provided new challenges. A group that included no seniors and seven freshmen and sophomores needed time to mesh and adjust to a new rotation system.
"We had so many new players that, at the beginning of the season, we didn't really even know each other," sophomore outside hitter Cara Cagan said. "We were just thrown together and expected to go out and play."
Springstead often was caught serving out of rotation while trying to learn the new 6-2 set, so the Eagles went to a simpler system that kept two setters on the floor at all times.
With less to worry about, the players concentrated on improving their passing, setting, hitting and serving. Still, the losses -- and the frustration -- mounted.
"I do not like to lose; I'm a very competitive person," Lossing said. "At first, when we started losing, I would get really down on myself and get upset. Then, it sort of became something I got used to a little bit."
The players persevered by keeping things loose and lifting each other's spirits.
"We always made sure we had fun with it," freshman setter Erin Cagan said. "Even if you're losing, the sport's still supposed to be fun."
As the season progressed, serving improved. Better digs led to longer volleys. Blocks and kills became more prevalent. Losses became less lopsided.
"Realistically, they've come a long ways," Davey said. "In a new team, you have to learn each other's moves and each other's abilities and inabilities and, in this particular case, they have come a long ways. They've learned each other, their strengths and their weaknesses and their services have improved immensely."
The Eagles played their most complete match in the district loss to Lecanto.
"I know the score didn't say that, but I just felt like we played so much better," Cara Cagan said.
Everywhere you look, there are signs of progress.
Springstead had a rookie team for the first time this season, which will help to develop players. The Eagles plan to attend camps together over the summer, which should improve team unity.
Except for setter Julia Schulte-Bahrenberg, an exchange student, everybody returns next season. In addition, backline player Vanessa Ziegler is expected to come back after a year away from the program.
In freshman Abbey Behensky, sophomore Cara Cagan and junior Catherine Gajdusek, Springstead has a slew of up-and-coming hitters.
"The first day of practice, I had no idea all those girls had so much talent," Lossing said. "It was really hidden."
So, what will it take to win?
"I think a lot of time, effort, practice and unity," Lossing said. "We just need to work together a little bit more."
There could still be a fairy tale ending.
-- Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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