Area's All-Time Best | 1986 Palmetto volleyball team comes up big in state final for county's lone crown

'Small' Tigers pulled huge upset for county's lone volleyball crown

jlembo@bradenton.comAugust 22, 2013 

The 1986 Palmetto Tigers volleyball team, coached by MikeVaughn and Mike Rio, claimed Manatee County's only state championship in the sport. PROVIDED PHOTO

They stepped right off an expensive coach bus and right into Palmetto's gymnasium.

They had confidence. They had a perfect record. And they had size. Lots of size.

"They looked like dinosaurs," Dana Whitaker said, "standing next to us."

"They" were the players who made up Miami Westminster Christian's volleyball team, which had a 37-0 record and was supposed to steamroll past Whitaker's Tigers that day and cruise to the 1986 Class 2A state championship.

"I don't think we had a player taller than 5-10," said Whitaker, a junior setter on the team.

Later that afternoon, however, the Tigers were toasting a state championship. And that's why Palmetto's 1986 team is the Herald's Area's All-Time Best in volleyball.

Since the Florida High School Athletic Association began crowning girls state volleyball champions in 1974, the '86 Tigers are the only ones who have brought the trophy back to Manatee County.

"It was pretty amazing," said Mike Rio, the assistant coach in '86.

The start to the state championship match was anything but amazing. Cindy Horrocks, one of Palmetto's top hitters, suffered an ankle injury in warm-ups. And Westminster rolled to a 15-2 victory in Game 1.

"They crushed it. We didn't know what was coming," Whitaker said.

Rio and Mike Vaughn, Palmetto's head coach, rearranged some blocking schemes and put different players into position to counter Westminster Christian's array of hard hitters.

But according to Rio, the tinkering was more mental than physical.

"The girls' mindset was, 'You're getting the first one -- but you're not getting anymore,'" he said. "We went to a lot of coaching clinics in California and North Carolina. ... We knew this game of volleyball was such an emotional game, and that emotional piece is something you have to teach your players. We called it NTS -- negative thought stopping. Winning is what we do. You lose a game, it's OK."

With Horrocks moved up front to block, the Tigers resorted to their game of fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.

"We dug every ball," Whitaker said, "and once we started hitting, (Westminster Christian) began to fall apart."

The Tigers, who defeated Crescent City that same day in a semifinal, won Game 2 15-10 and clinched the championship with a 15-8 victory in Game 3. They finished with a record of 20-8.

And they did it at home, four years before the FHSAA moved the state volleyball championships to one site.

"It was amazing. The community just filled that gym," said Rio, 54, now the principal at Mills Elementary School in Palmetto. "It was incredible. It was electric inside, and we definitely had that extra man."

It was emblematic of a community that helped finance some of the team's bus trips, a community where local businesses used their marquees to keep the folks abreast of how the team was doing.

"The community of Palmetto was so tight back then," Rio said.

So was the team, which also included Lisa Berndt, Helen Knox, Linda Krull, Lisa Krull, Tammy Merritt, Kathy Soth, Wendy Waddington and Shanie McCraw.

The Tigers prayed together before each match, and once the postseason began, celebrated a victory by cutting off a piece of Vaughn's and Rio's ties.

"It was phenomenal how that team gelled," said Whitaker, 43, now a fourth-grade writing teacher at Palmetto Elementary. "It was such a bond that we had. And we had two great coaches, and that was huge, respecting your coaches."

The '86 Tigers weren't a one-hit wonder. They returned to the final four the next season and reached the state final again in '88, losing to Estero.

But the '86 champions will live on forever. And when Whitaker was hired to coach Palmetto's varsity team in 2009, she showed the girls a grainy video of the state championship match.

"See that small team over there?" Whitaker told her players. "It just goes to show you that anything is possible."

HONORABLE MENTION1988 Palmetto

Two years after winning the area's first state championship, the Tigers (29-2) nearly did it again before losing to Estero in three games.

2006 Bradenton Christian

Led by the hard-hitting Stephanie Benardo, the Panthers (29-3) reached the state final four for the first time in program history. Voted the state's Class 1A player of the year, Benardo totaled 465 kills, dished out 141 assists and chipped in 146 digs. Seniors Courtney Jones and Katelyn Revels also had big years for BCS, as did sophomore Sarah Geraldson.

2008 Bradenton Christian

Having just two seniors -- Geraldson and Brandy Ribbens -- didn't stop BCS from making its second trip to Lakeland in two years. This was sweet for two reasons. First, the '07 Panthers (23-8) didn't make it out of the district tournament, the first time that had happened in nine years. Second, BCS defeated Tampa Bayshore Christian, the defending Class 1A state champions, in the region final.

2008 Manatee (26-3)

The Hurricanes were 0-2 against perennial power Venice and 26-1 against everyone else, though that other loss came to St. Petersburg Lakewood in the opening round of the Class 5A region playoffs. This marked the final year of the big-hitting tandem of Taylor Mealy and Courtney McDonald, with the latter earning a scholarship to play at Auburn. Manatee made the region playoffs in each of Mealy and McDonald's four seasons.

2012 Lakewood Ranch

It took no-nonsense coach Perri Hankins three years to turn around Lakewood Ranch and lead the Mustangs (23-6) into the final four for the first time. Mariah Robertson (482 kills), Laura Owens (306), Ashlyn Falahee (254) and Emily Rupple (283) took care of the hitting, while Ali Milbourn (935 assists) spent the fall getting them the ball. Lakewood Ranch won the first two matches before losing to five in St. Augustine in a Class 6A state semifinal.

2000 Cardinal Mooney

The Cougars (22-9) were the top-ranked team in the state but lost to Orlando Bishop Moore in the Class 3A state championship match.

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