Defending state champions fall in hostile environment

FT. LAUDERDALE

Prior to Saturday afternoon’s Class 8A volleyball state semifinal, Venice had not even come close to losing a set during the postseason.

The Indians dropped the first two sets to St. Thomas Aquinas in front of a noisy and hostile crowd at Aquinas. That forced Venice head coach Brian Wheatley to take his team completely out of the gym between the second and third sets.

“I had to get them out of that environment real quick.” Wheatley said. “After that second game it was just a matter of trying to get back on the horse and riding it.”

For one set Venice got back on the horse and took a win, but ultimately Aquinas went on to a 3-1 (25-17, 25-21, 21-25, 25-21) victory that eliminated the defending state champs and avenged a loss to the Indians in last year’s state semifinal that snapped a streak of three straight state titles by the Raiders.

The match started like a heavyweight fight with the team’s trading points throughout the first set. Aquinas took advantage of several Venice errors late and went on to the win the first set.

Venice continued to play tight in front of the loud crowd, which led to more service mistakes. Passing errors also let the Raiders take control of the net as Paige Barash, Olivia Mogridge and Sophia Davis neutralized Aja Jones and the rest of Venice’s attackers.

The Indians overcame their own mistakes and made things interesting late in the set. A pair of kills by Mogridge put the set out of reach.

Paradise Gibson’s kill gave Venice a 3-0 lead in the third set. Three straight aces by Brooke Wheatley gave Venice a lead they’d never relinquish. Jones ended the set with a kill down the middle of the Raider defense.

Another pair of aces from Wheatley put Venice up 19-17 in the fourth set. That advantage was short lived thanks to Barash and Mogridge, who traded kills to give Aquinas the lead, and a ticket back to the state final.

“We were able to move the ball around a lot and forced them into a lot of mistakes,” said Aquinas assistant coach Heather Trebbien, who was coaching the Raiders while head coach Lisa Zielinski tended to a family issue. “Venice is a good team and this is a great win for us. We had 10 seniors that lost to them last year and they didn’t want to feel that again.”

Gibson led Venice with 15 kills, followed by Jones with 11 kills and Sadie Kluner with nine.

“It was a tough environment but you have to give credit to Aquinas,” Wheatley said. “They played really great and I thought that was one of the best matches they’ve played all year.”

Venice ends the year with a 25-6 record. Saturday’s loss also marks the end of the road for 10 seniors, most of whom helped the Indians to the 2017 title.

“I told them all that I love them and that they brought our program to new levels and new expectations,” Wheatley said. “We battled all year and we played excellent as a team. Someone had to go home today ... and, unfortunately, it was us.”