No surprises here
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
NEW PORT RICHEY -- As rivalries go, it's hard for two schools to finish the year closer than River Ridge and Mitchell did.
The Knights won all three head-to-head meetings, of course, but the last -- for the Class 4A, District 8 volleyball title -- was a three-game thriller that saw River Ridge win after fighting off a match point.
In the region playoffs, both teams won in the first round, then saw their seasons ended on the same court by the same opponent, only a few hours apart. Both teams' success would not have been possible without talented leaders in Knights senior Dawn Conner and Mustangs junior Katelen Dixon.
Dixon was the area's most dominant hitter, and Conner was a leader who did a little of everything in leading the Knights to their best playoff showing in six years.
"I think a co-Player of the Year is just fine for those two," River Ridge coach Heidi Castelamare said. "In many ways, they're very similar, and Katelen is a great player. If they could play together, they'd be awesome. As good as they are, neither has a chip on their shoulder."
County coaches gave Conner the nod as Sunshine Athletic Conference Player of the Year by the narrowest of margins. Conner received four votes and Dixon three, while Hudson senior Tarah Marinelli received the final two.
Conner and Dixon entered the season as the county's most anticipated stars. Dixon led the county with 257 kills last year, while Conner prepared to take on an even greater role as one of only four returning Knights. Neither disappointed. Dixon topped the county again with 354 kills, while Conner led the Knights with 230.
Both stood out most, however, for other things.
Conner finished fifth in the county in assists -- at 5-foot-10, she'll likely play setter in college -- and sported a nasty jump serve that gave the Knights early leads.
Dixon, whose serves led the county with 53 aces, had the challenge of not only being her team's primary hitter, but in fielding a majority of opposing serves as well.
"We ran a one-person, serve-receive around her, and that put pressure on her to not only finish most of our attacks, but to start them as well," Mustangs coach Joe Dixon said. "I thought she could put up big numbers, so it was just a matter of getting her the ball."
Castelamare said that Conner exemplified an unofficial team motto: "Better the ball," meaning even if a pass isn't perfect, make the set better, and even if the set is off the mark, find a way to hit it better.
"It's just doing something better with the ball than when you got it," Castelamare said. "Dawn's ability to adjust helped her, because this is high school volleyball, and everything is not consistent. So you better the ball, and Dawn did that whether she was hitting or setting."
The Knights and Mustangs enter next season with the county's best rivalry, even though River Ridge has won all seven meetings. Asked for the highlight of their seasons, both Conner and Dixon pointed to the district championship game.
Mitchell won the first game 15-11 -- the first time since last year's districts that River Ridge lost a game to a county opponent -- but the Knights rallied to win the second game, 15-5.
Mitchell had a match point at 14-13, but River Ridge kept an errant pass alive and scored the match's final three points, the last on Conner's 20th kill. She remembered the tense atmosphere at Tarpon Springs.
"All the Hudson and Tarpon players were there wearing Mitchell shirts, and we had no fans, because it was Halloween night," Conner said. "Any one point could have changed the way it finished, but that was by far the best moment of the year."
Dixon finished with 21 kills in the championship match and will return next season for the Mustang program's fourth year. She said her favorite matches were against River Ridge and appreciated the way the Knights helped speed up her team's improvement.
"I always looked forward to playing them. We always got a little extra excited for them," Dixon said. "They helped us out a lot, and they made us a better team."
ALL-COUNTY VOLLEYBALL TEAM
Dawn Conner: Senior setter/outside hitter, RIVER RIDGE
The Sunshine Athletic Conference Player of the Year led the Royal Knights to the region final, recording 230 kills and 242 assists along the way as the county's most well-rounded player. Her tough jump serve helped her to 49 aces, good enough for third in the county.
Katelen Dixon: Junior outside hitter, MITCHELL
The Mustangs' dominating hitter led the county with 354 kills, nearly 100 more than last year's county-leading mark. She also led the county with 53 aces and added 29 blocks in leading the Mustangs to their first playoff berth and a first-round victory over Clermont East Ridge.
Tarah Marinelli: Senior middle hitter, HUDSON
The county's toughest player at the net had 118 blocks, nearly double her closest competitor. Her 245 kills ranked second behind Dixon, and her 34 aces put her sixth. A difficult district was the only thing keeping the Cobras out of the playoffs.
Angela Medvid: Senior setter/outside hitter, WESLEY CHAPEL
Eastside's top player did a little of everything in guiding Wildcats to their third straight district title: She had a team-best 40 aces and 163 assists, while finishing within four kills of the team lead.
Nicole Patton: Senior setter, MITCHELL
The Mustangs' crisp passer finished with 591 assists -- 10 shy of the county lead -- setting Dixon and steering the Mustangs to the second round of the playoffs. She also added 25 aces.
Jamie Surmin: Junior middle hitter, RIDGEWOOD
She led the Rams to a 15-win season with 228 kills while sporting a serve both steady (96 percent) and strong (24 aces). Among county players, only Dixon will return with more kills next year.
Lauren Bislick, Sr., OH, Hudson.
Brittany Castelamare, Fr., S/OH, River Ridge.
Alison Foster, Jr., MH, Land O'Lakes.
Megan Halkitis, Jr., S, Ridgewood.
Mandi Petrella, Sr., MH, River Ridge.
Kari Wiedinger, So., MH, Mitchell.
Gulf: Amy O'Brien, So., MH/OH; Kortney Newton, Jr., S; Hudson: Jenna Strawser, So., S; Land O'Lakes: April Slate, Jr., OH; Mitchell: Tanya Ubillus, Jr., OH; Pasco: Amy Herndon, Jr., MH; Ridgewood: Amber Marion, Sr., OH; River Ridge: Alyssa Breviario, Jr., OH; Tricia Thomas, Jr., OH; Wesley Chapel: Brenna Lane, Jr., MH; Zephyrhills: Megan Pitts, Sr., MH.
-- Compiled by Greg Auman.
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