There was parity in Class 1A volleyball this season.
But two of the teams that were the most consistent — Union County (Lake Butler) and Williston — earned home court advantage in tonight’s regional semifinals.
Both teams are led by first-year coaches.
“This season has been great,” said Union County coach Tifani Knox. “The girls have worked really hard to get to this point. It has been very rewarding watching them learn and grow together as a team.”
The Tigers (18-7) earned the No. 2 seed in 1A-Region 3 after winning the 1A-District 6 title with a 3-1 win against Branford last Thursday.
Knox said the key was “staying focused and executing the basics.”
“We served well, passed well and made good decisions at the net,” she said.
Branford (19-6), which is the No. 3 seed in 1A-Region 3, was the other team that played well from the start, jumping out to a 13-0 record and a No. 1 ranking midseason before losing in five sets to Bell on Sept. 19.
Union County and Branford will face each other again in a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup in Lake Butler in Friday’s regional semifinals. The first serve is at 7 p.m.
Senior Jaycee Davis has had a big year for the host Tigers with a team-leading 331 kills, 312 digs, and 56 aces.
Kennedy Walker leads Branford with 206 kills, followed by Jadyn Mosley with 176. The juniors also lead the team with 59 aces apiece.
Knox said “staying focused and playing our game at our tempo” is what it will take for the Tigers to beat the Bucs for the second time in a week and advance to Tuesday’s region final.
“Communicating and playing smart will be key for us,” she said. “If we do those things the outcome should be in our favor.”
According to the MaxPreps rankings, Union County is ranked sixth, followed by No. 7 Branford, No. 8 Williston, and No. 11 Bell.
However, despite being ahead of No. 12 Hilliard, the 11th-ranked Bulldogs (14-11) missed the postseason based on the FHSAA power rankings, which is a version of the MaxPreps rankings, that had the two flip-flopped.
Hilliard (9-5) got the nod (4.655 – 4.438 FHSAA rating) as the No. 4 seed in 1A-Region 3 instead of No. 5 seed Bell despite playing 11 fewer games and not having as strong a schedule as the Bulldogs (2.82 – 0.70).
So, the Flashes will travel to Aucilla Christian (Monticello) in the other regional semifinal.
“Bell, I believe, should have been in,” said Newberry coach Hank Rone, whose team will play top seed Williston in a 1A-Region 4 semifinal at 7 p.m. “It is almost like you get penalized for playing more games.”
The Panthers (11-15) are the No. 4 seed after falling in five sets to Dixie County (Cross City) in the 1A-District 7 championship game last week. Newberry’s tough schedule helped them earn an at-large bid.
“It has been a little bit of a roller coaster,” Rone said about the season, which included playing (6A) Buchholz and seven teams who made the playoffs in different classifications. “I think we have been involved in over 25 sets that ended in two points. Just learning to finish games is what we have been working hard on. One thing is our team never quits. We make mistakes, but don’t hold our head down. We fight back hard.”
Rone’s daughter, Hannah, leads the team with 156 kills. She’s one of just three seniors on the team.
“We are a very young team in the back court,” Rone said. “Our libero, Malana Kennard, and top defensive specialist, Mckenzie Moses, are both sophomores. Our second leader in kills and six rotation player, Chloe Jones (153 kills), is a sophomore.”
Williston (17-10) also has just three seniors. Despite being swept by Glades Day (Belle Glade) in the Class 1A-District 8 championship game, the Red Devils still earned the top seed in 1A-Region 4.
“We came together on June 12th and we asked all our ladies to buy into summer workouts and from that day they have worked hard,” said first-year Williston coach Kevin Tiller. “We wanted to change the culture here for the entire program and build it from the middle school up. I truly believe all the hard work has paid off and we are playing some of our best volleyball right now.”
This will be the first meeting this season between the No. 4 Panthers and top seed Red Devils.
“Hank Rone has done an incredible job at Newberry and I know this, he will have the Panthers ready to play,” Tiller said. “They have some strong hitters and great senior leadership at setter. The one thing I do know about that program is they have been here year after in the playoffs and know how to win.”
The Red Devils are led by junior Grace Dola (227 kills) and senior Karley Jerrels (195 kills).
“Williston has the two most dynamic outsides in our region,” Rone said. “Great serve and serve receive team. This will be one of our hardest challenges of the season. You can’t stop the two outsides, but we have to try and slow them down by getting some touches on their hits and trying to get a couple blocks.
Rone said there are a few keys to victory for his Newberry team.
We have to put down our kill shots at a higher rate than we have been and try to keep them out of system as much as we can,” he said “Hitting our serve zones and serve receiving at a high rate will be a big key for us. We can’t give them the easy points with missed serves or them getting a lot of aces on us.”
Rone said that there is not a coach around that knows him better and how he prepares than Tiller.
“I coached his daughter at club and got to know him very well over the past seven years,” Rone said. “He was my first hire at Newberry in 2020, ran the JV program and assisted coach on varsity. He has done a great job in his first year and is building a program at Williston, which is lucky to have a coach like that.”
Despite losing its district championship game, Williston still earned the No. 1 seed, so the new FHSAA format benefited some, but not all.
Dixie County, which is 14th in the MaxPreps rankings, was awarded the 2-seed after winning the 1A-District 7 title. The Bears (12-12) will host No. 3 seed Glades Day in the other regional semifinal.
“They must be really good, since Glades was able to beat Williston in three sets,” said Dixie County coach James Bendel, Jr., who is also in his first season. “The key to winning is keep doing what we’ve been doing which is serving well, passing well and believing in each other. The belief in each other is the key to everything.”
The two players who made the greatest impact in last week’s district title win were Anna Ellison and Peyton Hatcher.
“All five seniors contributed greatly but those two players especially,” Bendel said. “Anna hit almost .500 and had five aces, there in the last set which brought us back to a tie score of 9-9. Peyton distributed the ball evenly across all of our hitters (32 assists) and played great defense (23 digs).”
Last year the Bears were in the state semifinals and returned a solid nucleus in 2022. And although they were up and down at times, they still found a way to win a district title.
“The team continues to work hard in practice every day,” Bendel said “The players all had to learn something completely new and it has taken a little longer then we all expected. As a team we have discussed at length coming together and playing for each other throughout the season and we are now seeing the team playing as one unit.”
Dixie County is back in the 1A state playoffs, but there’s still work to be done.
“I will measure myself not so much on wins and losses but whether or not each athlete got better and I believe they have,” Bendel. “I hope to assist the seniors who want to continue to play at the next level find opportunities to continue to play in college, if they are able to continue to play then I’ve been successful.”
The winner of tonight’s Williston-Newberry game will play the winner of the Glades Day-Dixie County game on Tuesday in the regional final.
2022 FHSAA Volleyball state playoffs
WED., OCT. 26 – REGIONAL QUARTERFINALS
Class 6A-Region 1
No. 3 Mosley (Lynn Haven) 3, No. 6 Gainesville 0 – Hurricanes end the season with a 20-8 record. It was the first time in 18 years since GHS had a 20-win season.
THU., OCT. 27 – REGIONAL SEMIFINALS (CLASS 4A)
Class 4A-Region 2
No. 1 Santa Fe (Alachua) 3, No. 5 Astronaut (Titusville) 0 (Moved to Thursday, Oct. 27)
FRI., OCT. 28 – REGIONAL SEMIFINALS (CLASS 1A-2A)
Class 1A-Region 3
No. 3 Branford at No. 2 Union County (Lake Butler), 7 p.m.
Class 1A-Region 4
No. 4 Newberry at No. 1 Williston, 7 p.m.
No. 3 Glades Day (Belle Glade) at No. 2 Dixie County (Cross City), 7 p.m.
Class 2A-Region 1
No. 4 Harvest Community (Jacksonville) at No. 1 Oak Hall School, 7 p.m.