For three games Thursday, Out-of-Door Academy sat on the brink of a breakthrough. After stealing the first two sets from Sarasota Christian, Out-of-Door needed just a break to tilt in its favor and a Class 3A-District 5 championship could have been the Thunder’s.
ODA hadn’t won a district title since 2013, when the program had a different head coach and different identity, and a win in Sarasota against the district’s clear power would have provided a landmark moment for third-year head coach Stefanie Betz.
Out-of-Door’s two-game lead shrunk when the Blazers scored a commanding third-set win, then shriveled with two more losses by two points each. By a matter of inches, the Thunder settled for second.
“It was tough,” Betz said. “It took me a couple minutes to kind of like take some deep breaths and collect myself.
“It’s seriously just like one ball goes the other way and that’s the difference.”
ODA’s win against Saint Stephen’s two days earlier, though, qualified it as one of three area teams that will play in the region playoffs this week. Out-of-Door begins the postseason in the Class 3A-Region 3 semifinals and will travel to Naples on Wednesday to meet Seacrest Country Day. Manatee and Bayshore will both begin their postseason in the region quarterfinals Tuesday in Naples. The Hurricanes face Gulf Coast in the Class 8A-Region 3 quarters, and the Bruins get Lely in the Class 6A-Region 3 tournament.
Betz has another opportunity to take ODA (14-13) on its next step Wednesday. A win against Seacrest (20-6) would be the biggest win of her brief time in Sarasota, which has now yielded a pair of trips to the region tournament.
“Always our goal is to get into the postseason, but part of what we’re trying to do here is to change the culture of the program to where we’re not just playing just to play,” Betz said. “We’re playing to get into the postseason and we’re playing to get into the regional finals. It’s going to take some time to see the fruits of our labor, but every year we’ve been getting closer and closer.”
Two years ago, ODA finished Betz’s first regular season with a district runner-up to earn a road trip in the region quarterfinal to Clearwater Central Catholic. Out-of-Door’s postseason experience lasted only three sets, though, as the Marauders swept them out of the playoffs. The Thunder only scored more than 13 points in one of the three games against the eventual state champion.
But roster overturn kept Betz and ODA from building on the momentum of her first year, and Out-of-Door slogged through a four-win regular season during Betz’s second. Single-game losses where the Thunder failed to crack double-digits were as common as losses that made it to a fourth set.
Youth has reinvigorated ODA this fall. Outside hitter BreAnn Brown, the team’s leader in kills and serve receptions, is a freshman. Middle blocker Adelaide Mahler, who only has 20 fewer kills, is a sophomore. Sophie Fedder, an eighth-grader, has recorded at least nine kills in two of Out-of-Door’s past six matches.
Because of players like those three, Betz saw glimmers of the future against SCS, which made it through the district regular season only dropping three sets. Thursday’s effort alone showed progress. Now the Thunder hopes to capitalize.
“We played teams last year that we couldn’t even compete with them,” Betz said. “Maybe it doesn’t end with a ‘W’ for us this year, but we’re competing with people more, and more and more, which is what you want to see.”
Class 6A-Region 3: Bayshore at Naples Lely, 7 p.m.
Class 8A-Region 3: Manatee at Naples Gulf Coast, 7 p.m.
Class 3A-Region 3: Out-of-Door Academy at Seacrest Country Day, 7 p.m.