BRADENTON — Last year, volleyball for State College of Florida was an exercise in futility.
Now, it’s a reason to celebrate.
And the Manatees did just that before a raucous crowd at Hal Chasey Gymnasium on Tuesday night, which saw SCF complete one of the biggest turnarounds in state volleyball history.
After winning just one Suncoast Conference match last year, the Manatees won the championship with a 3-2 victory over Hillsborough Community College, considered one of the elite programs in the state.
It seemed fitting that Aurora Newgard got the final point in the last game that gave the Manatees a 25-22, 17-25, 25-15, 19-25, 15-12 win.
It was the 18th straight win for SCF (21-4), which is ranked 17th nationally after a dismal 6-29 record in 2009. The Manatees are 6-0 in conference with two matches left. With two wins over HCC (13-6, 4-2) they own the tiebreaker over the 18th-ranked Hawks. It’s SCF’s first conference title since ’04.
Newgard was a member of last year’s team, which made everything sweeter this time. She came into the match with a team-high 332 kills.
“We were in just about every match last year, but just didn’t know how to finish,” Newgard said. “Our confidence was never there, and we would fall apart in the end. This year our confidence has grown so much.
“Our new coach has made a big difference. It was rough last year because we were so close and lost so many heart-breaker games. We would be in with every team and just fall apart.”
The Manatees showed no signs of crumbling against HCC.
They never trailed in the final game, which was tied five times until SCF outscored HCC 5-1 to break an 8-8 deadlock and take a 13-9 lead.
The Hawks pulled within 14-12 and seemed to take the momentum when Newgard recorded her team high 15th kill of the night to end the match.
“I was a little worried in the last game, but I knew we could do it because we have come back so many times this season.” Newgard said. “It was nerve-wracking, but I was pumped up. In the last game, mwe just believed we could do it.”
Natalie Gaudreau was credited with nine kills and had 12 digs for the Manatees. Lacey Blackman was a force on the front row with seven blocks and six kills, and Emily Strack contributed six kills.
Sarah Geraldson, the former Bradenton Christian standout, was credited with 35 assists, and Abby Gaiotti had 15 digs.
“This is one of the best feelings you could have,” Geraldson said. “HCC for so long has dominated the conference and showing them and everyone what we have is so much fun and there is so much pride in the program now. A big thing is that we all get along so well and have a lot of confidence to keep us going when we get down.”
SCF head coach Carmine Garofalo took over the program this year after coaching last season at Southern Vermont College. He was the head coach at Southeast High from 2004-08.
“The girls did an awesome job tonight and did exactly what they needed to do,” Garofalo said. “Our girls have played hard all season. The key thing they have done all season is stay mentally strong and never give up no matter what the situation is. We had a couple of new players, but basically this is a talented group of athletes.”