First-time coaches knocking on door

Volleyball playoff collage - Williston, Union County and Santa Fe
Williston, Union County and Santa Fe are one match away from playing in the state championship round. (Photos by C.J. Gish)

The Williston and Union County (Lake Butler) volleyball teams began the season with first-year coaches.

On Friday, both head coaches will get an opportunity to play in the Class 1A state semifinals, just one win away from a state title game appearance.

New Williston coach Kevin Tiller’s goal was a district championship, and possibly a state title.

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In August, Tiller said his team was “hungry and ready to do whatever it takes to get them to that level.”

The Red Devils fell short of a district title after being swept by Glades Day (Belle Glade) in the 1A-District 8 championship game. However, they won the game that counted most, rallying from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Gators, 3-2, in the Class 1A-Region 4 Final.

Junior Grace Dola, who leads the team with 252 kills, had a big game with 33 kills, followed by senior Karley Jerrels (219 kills) with 12 kills. Junior Shayna Geiger added 29 assists, followed by junior Jenna Yancey with 15 assists, and senior Addi Mayes with three aces.

Williston volleyball coach Kevin Tiller
Photo by C.J. Gish Williston volleyball coach Kevin Tiller.

“After losing to them in the district championship we told our girls that they were going to throw some punches at us and then we had to respond to them,” Tiller said. “The first two sets we did not do a great job of doing that. In the third set, just like against Newberry, the intensity picked up and we started throwing some punches back.”

It was the second time that Williston (19-10) had rallied down two games in the postseason. The Red Devils came back to beat Newberry if five sets in the regional semifinals.

“I love our never give up attitude,” Tiller said. “When we started answering their (Glades Day) punches it changed their mindset a little bit and opened up the door for us to claw our way back in. Never give up.”

The win helped secure Williston’s first final four appearance since 2017.

“As coaches we truly believed we had the players to make it this far,” Tiller said. “We also knew we had to change the culture and mindset to that of a winning team. Playing tough matches all year, I believe, had us prepared for the last two games against Newberry and then Glades Day.”

The Red Devils will travel to Bristol to face top-ranked Liberty County, which eliminated nine-time Class 1A state champion Sneads in four sets.

The Bulldogs (26-2) are led by junior Caleigh Peddie with 346 kills.

“They look scrappy on defense and do a great job in their serve receive,” Tiller said. “One thing I have noticed is a bunch of consistency in their hitters. You do not come into the final four with a record of 26-2 and not know how to play volleyball.”

Williston, which hosted the district tournament and the first two rounds of the 1A state tournament, will have to leave the Devils Den for the first time in over three weeks. It marks the first game away from home for the Red Devils since defeating Union County on the road, 3-1, on Oct. 11.

“Once again it is all about mindset and we expect it to be a crazy environment,” Tiller said. “Every player for us has to do their job and if we can do that we will have a great shot to win this game.”

Union County (20-7), which is ranked third in the state in Class 1A by MaxPreps, will also be on the road.

The Tigers are coming off a sweep of Aucilla Christian in the 1A-Region 3 Final in Monticello.

Senior Jaycee Davis, who has a team-leading 331 kills this season for Union County, had 13 Kills, 13 digs, three blocks, and three aces in the regional final, followed by senior Emily Wilson with seven kills. 

“We knew we could beat them if we kept our energy up and focused on passing well,” said first-year Union County coach Tifani Knox. “Running a quick offense gave us an opportunity to hit against one blocker in several situations.”

Freshman Jailyn Simmons added five kills, while junior Jurney Crim (19 digs), sophomore Kamryn Southerland (17 assists), junior Jordan Hendricks (16 assists) and junior Rylie Parrish (4 kills, 2 blocks) all played a part in the Tigers’ fourth straight win.

“We got behind in the third set and had to fight hard to come back and win in three,” Knox said. “Although I don’t enjoy having to come from behind, it builds character as a team and instills the competitive spirit in the players. When they successfully dig themselves out of holes it shows them how much they are capable of.”

Union County, which won a district title last season in 1A-District 7, won the District 6 title this year with a 3-1 win against Branford, who they defeated in the regional semifinals.

Union County volleyball coach Tifani Knox
Photo by C.J. Gish Union County volleyball coach Tifani Knox.

They defended their district title under a new coach and now they are two wins away from their first state title in school history.

“I knew that they had the potential to reach this point if we worked hard and played as a team,” Knox said. “I am so proud of these girls and how hard they have worked. They have improved so much over the season and have earned this spot in the final four.”

A spot in next Friday’s 1A state championship game awaits if the Tigers can win at No. 2 Baker (21-6), which is led by sophomore Madolyn Mills (199 kills) and senior Kailyn Ellis (197).

Baker swept Chipley in the Region 1 Final.

“For us to come back with a win we have to play our best,” Knox said. “Serve well, pass well, communicate and work together. Setting up a strong block and using all of our hitters will be key. Our girls are ready to play and looking forward to Friday.”

The first serve for both 1A state semifinals is at 7 p.m.

Defending 4A state champion Santa Fe (Alachua) is also one win away from a state championship game appearance.

The top-ranked Raiders (28-2), who swept Bishop Moore (Orlando) in the 4A-Region 2 Final, will host Bishop Kenny (Jacksonville).

The visiting Crusaders (19-9), who are ranked sixth in 4A, are led by senior Allison Cavanaugh with 318 kills.

Reigning Miss Volleyball Jalyn Stout has been dominant for the Raiders this season. The Coastal Carolina commit has 513 kills.

It will be the third meeting between the two state champions in two seasons.

Bishop Kenny was the defending 4A state champion last year when Santa Fe defeated the Crusaders in the 2021 4A-Region 1 Final.

Last month, the Raiders defeated the Crusaders, 3-1, on a neutral floor (Oct. 15). Stout led the way with 24 kills, while Cavanaugh led Bishop Kenny with 16.

Per Santa Fe Athletics Director Michele Faulk, the game has been moved to Saturday at 4 p.m. since the Santa Fe football team is celebrating Senior Night on Friday.

The 2022 FHSAA Volleyball state championship games will be held Nov. 11-12 at Polk State College – Winter Haven Health Center.

The Class 1A state championship starts at 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 11 and the 4A state title game is at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12.

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