LAKEWOOD RANCH -- As they their made way to practice Monday afternoon, the girls who make up Lakewood Ranch's volleyball team were greeted by a receiving line of about 30 wrestlers.
"They started chanting, 'Volleyball is No.1'" said senior hitter Mariah Robertson, "and, 'State champs!' State champs!'"
Classmates and teachers offered praise and applause throughout the day. And the volleyball team was featured Monday on the school's morning news program.
"We never get our games on the news," said senior libero Jordan Wopinski.
"We can't go anywhere," Robertson added. "Everyone's always saying, 'Good luck.'"
Not that anyone is complaining. The Mustangs are enjoying the new-found spoils of celebrity now that they have made history: Lakewood Ranch meets Saint Augustine at noon Tuesday in a Class 6A state semifinal at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
It's the program's first final four appearance, putting the Mustangs a match away from playing for a state championship.
It's also a long way from where they were when Robertson was a freshman on the varsity.
"Coach Perri (Hankins) has turned the program around from where it was to where it is now," said Robertson, who has a team-best 495 kills. "We've taken a big jump. ... I mean, a leap."
Hankins took over two weeks before the start of the 2010 season after the Mustangs spent the entire summer without a coach.
"We goofed around," Robertson said. "And then we got a new coach. No one knew her."
A new coach meant a new work ethic. The Mustangs were practicing twice a day and doing extra work on Saturday while Hankins worked on the team's mental approach, too.
"She pretty much tells us not to have a life during volleyball season," Robertson said.
"Which is good," said se
nior Emily Ruple, "because it keeps our minds on it."
That being said, the learning curve was steep at the beginning.
"It was a definitely a change. At the beginning, everyone was exhausted," Wopinski said. "It was a two-a-days right away, and we weren't used to that at all. It was a shock, but once we got used to it, everyone was all for it."
Last year's work paid dividends, as the Mustangs won a program-best 21 matches and reached a region final for the first time.
So when this year came around, everyone was ready to buy in, including seniors Wopinski, Robertson and Ruple.
"This team has really good chemistry, and they're a big part of it," Hankins said. "They're just easygoing, and they've been around volleyball so much. They can help all the other players in what needs to be done, and they lead physically."
All the work and sacrifice has led the Mustangs into the state semifinals, as well as into the hearts and minds of Lakewood Ranch's student body.
Suffice it to say, it has all been worth it.
"Everyone sacrificed," Wopinski said. "We all want this."