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Confident Clearwater wins state

The Tornadoes roll over Hudson to capture the 4A volleyball championship they expected to win.

By BOB PUTNAM

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


LAKE BUENA VISTA -- The Clearwater High volleyball team always has displayed a we-had-them-all-the-way attitude.

That never was more apparent than during the Tornadoes' Class 4A state championship match against Hudson on Saturday.

After Clearwater won 15-12, 15-6, the players piled on one another at center court at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, then headed back to the sideline, where they put on T-shirts that proclaimed them state champions.

"Even though we had a few speed bumps along the way, I wanted the players to believe that they can walk out on the court and play with anybody, regardless of classification," coach Lynn Hallmark said.

"They displayed that attitude. I've never been around a group of players that was able to focus like that and be able to put off outside distractions." Such assuredness comes from Clearwater's experience. The Tornadoes made their fourth final four appearance in the past five years and were trying to win their first state title since 1997.

Four of the five senior starters -- Melanie Custer, Katy Barber, Emily McDaniel and Kara Betourne -- were freshmen when Clearwater won its first championship. Finishing their prep careers with another crown seemed in doubt a month ago when the Tornadoes lost matches to county rivals Countryside and East Lake in successive weeks and fell from No. 1 in the 4A state poll to No. 2. The team that took over the top spot was Hudson.

Clearwater had a week and a half off after the loss to East Lake, and Hallmark used the time to practice fundamentals and allow injured players to heal. Stronger, focused and injury-free, the Tornadoes swept through the post-season and turned their attention to Hudson.

Initially, not everyone was confident about the final. Melissa Johnson woke up at 6 a.m. Saturday with an uneasy feeling. She was worried about how she and her teammates were going to stop Hudson middle hitter Alison Baker. Barber reassured her everything was going to be okay.

"I said, "Don't worry about that Alison Baker. Just hit the line today,' " Barber said.

Down 3-0 in the first game, the Tornadoes stopped the 6-foot Baker with a sideout and quieted Hudson's rowdy supporters. Then a rally started as Barber scored five consecutive points off serves to put the Tornadoes ahead. Clearwater maintained the lead and held off a late Hudson comeback to win.

In the second game, the Tornadoes trailed 4-3 before scoring five in a row to go ahead for good. McDaniel, the tournament MVP, produced five of Clearwater's final seven points to seal the victory.

McDaniel finished with eight kills and two blocks. Johnson, named to the all-tournament team, had five kills.

"This team is a lot like the one in 1997 because everyone told us we couldn't win a state title," McDaniel said. "Well, we did that year. People said it couldn't be done again, and we did it again."

For Barber, the result never was in doubt.

"The only question I think all of the seniors had coming in here was which finger we'd put the ring on now that we have two," she said.

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