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Eagle's game gets defensive

A summer of hard work leaves East Lake hitter Nicole Britenriker without a weakness.

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 21, 2001

Nicole Britenriker has towered over teammates for as long as she can remember. Her arms, much like her body, seem to go on and on and on.

Opponents didn't have an answer for the damage East Lake's 5-foot-11 sophomore middle hitter could inflict from the front row.

However, last season, the rules of volleyball did. Whenever the big hitter was pinned to the back row due to rotation, opponents had the advantage. Her coaches usually ended up substituting for her with a defensive specialist.

That was, until Britenriker decided she had had enough.

"I've always loved to play back row and I worked a lot to become better at it," Britenriker said. "I wanted to be a player who can play all-around."

Of all the numbers that display how far Britenriker has come this season -- 292 kills, 100 blocks, 30 service aces -- the ones that stand out the most are these: 177 defensive digs.

With the skills to match her size, Britenriker has no weakness.

"I could tell she worked hard to become a better player," Eagles coach Terry Small said. "Her court awareness, her body awareness had improved so much. I could just tell it was going to be an incredible season."

Tired of being a role player as a freshman, Britenriker emphasized her defensive play during the spring and summer with the Tampa Bay Juniors club team and the U.S. Olympic Developmental team.

"Watching her grow in the past year has been absolutely amazing," Small said. "You don't see that type of improvement in most girls in four years of high school and you saw it in one year with her."

The payoff from her hard work came this season. East Lake went 29-5, ended a two-year playoff drought and advanced to the state final four for the first time since 1995.

In the Class 5A region final against Fort Myers, Britenriker made two defensive plays that saved the match and the season as the Eagles won 15-12, 15-12.

The first came on a pass that was sailing out of bounds. Britenriker stuck out her right arm and swatted the ball over the net for a dig that eventually turned into a sideout.

After trading sideouts, Britenriker came up with another dig to keep the ball in play. Britenriker reached so low for the ball she cut her chin on the floor.

"I knew we were going to have a good team and I wanted to make sure I played at a higher level," Britenriker said. "I think we accomplished a lot this season as a team."

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