tampabay.com

Eagles looking to rebound

Last year's playoff disappointment spurs East Lake this season.

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published August 23, 2005


Lauren Hill remembers the feeling all too well. The stinging sensation, enough to bring tears to your eyes, the kind of anguish that makes you bury your face in your hands.

And she thought her injured back was bad.

Though it caused her to miss the district final last year, back pain did not compare to the disappointment of losing to Northeast in the first round of the state playoffs last season.

For the Vikings, it was the first postseason win ever. For the Eagles, it was the first time they had ever dropped a first-round game.

"Wow," Hill remembers saying, "it's over."

In fact, it was just beginning. The young Eagles, who weren't expected to take off last year, are now ready to fly high, returning every starter from last year.

After a successful spring and summer, East Lake (17-9 last year) enters the season primed to usurp Clearwater in the county's toughest district. The Tornadoes, as well as Palm Harbor University, will have something to say about that, but may have to look up to do it as the Eagles will start three 6-footers plus returning all-county picks Hill and Michelle Ferguson.

"When we went to team camp, we all just immediately (clicked)," Hill said. "It was bump, set and spike. We put the ball down every time. I think each individual has gotten better, and that just makes our team that much better."

Senior outside hitter Kayla Radics, senior middle hitter Alex Nobel and sophomore middle hitter Sara Rex are all 6-0, and Lindsey Opperman is 5-10. Assistant Barb Smalls said all four can be used interchangeably upfront, which will open kill opportunities for Hill and Ferguson.

"We're as excited about this year's team as we were about out final four teams," Smalls said. "They're not as athletic, but they are bigger and taller and I think we'll dominate at the net."

A daunting schedule, with the opener at state runner-up Venice, should toughen the Eagles up for the playoffs.

"Record-wise it could be our worst season ever," Smalls said, laughing. "But the idea is to prepare us for the postseason."

Part of that schedule includes at least two matches with Clearwater, which lost Player of the Year Sloane Baby but little else from a 22-5 team, and PHU.

The Hurricanes (15-3 last year) return the bulk of their starting lineup, including all-county picks Christine Tan (outside hitter) and setter Sydney Miller.

Countryside, a longtime district member, won't have to worry about navigating the talented Class 5A, District 9 trio. The Cougars move up to 6A-7.