BRADENTON -- Manatee's first practice of the 2015 school year looks nearly the same as it did on the first day of the 2014 season. While half the team ran through a routine bump-set-spike drill, the other half chased down balls on the opposite side of the net.
Some of the time that made for a bit of a workout, short sprints across the court and around the gymnasium. The entire time it led to giggles and joking.
"Practice is hard sometimes," said Haley Coulter, the Herald's All-Area Player of the Year in 2014. "We lose focus a lot."
But this is pretty much how the start of the year went for the Hurricanes last season, too. They were even younger that year with only one senior on the roster and their naivete became a strength. When the Canes dropped the opening set of the state championship match by 11 points to Jupiter, they responded with three consecutive victories to win the Class 8A title 3-1.
Because of history and youth, Manatee was an underdog throughout the 2014 campaign, even after going 17-2 in the regular season. With only five prior playoff wins in their history, the Hurricanes' tear through the FHSAA playoffs was unprecedented. And with a maturing roster, the Canes are raising expectations.
"We'd like to go undefeated this year," Coulter said. "I think that would be the next goal for us."
The first step comes at 7 p.m. Thursday when Manatee opens the regular season at Braden River High School.
After facing Braden River, which went 6-12 last season and lost its season opener to Clearwater Calvary Christian Tuesday, the schedule ramps up for the Hurricanes. They open their home slate Tuesday against Venice, which won the Class 6A state championship, and continue with a schedule that should be even tougher than last season's.
On Sept. 11, the Canes go to Orlando for the Lake Highland/Winter Park Showcase. The next weekend, Manatee will play in the invite-only Berkeley Prep Premier.
To Jacque Armer, the invite to the Berkeley Premier signified the Hurricanes' arrival among the state's best. They first realized it last year when the squared off against Palm Harbor University at region and breezed to a win.
"We realized we were playing to a higher level than we realized all year," Armer said, "so when we got to state it didn't faze us."
But now they're not a mystery. Coulter, who is committed to Tulsa, said the team was often underestimated last year. The Canes would go through warmups with the same intensity as their practices and it caught opponents off-guard even as they continued to pile up victories.
People know their schtick now, although it's still that personality that lets them overcome early deficits and scratch out five-set wins.
The only mystery is Manatee's libero. Jesse Durst is the only player gone and the Hurricanes are trying out three different players in her place, including the only new player, Inspiration transfer Kara Saylor.
"It's almost exactly like last year except we lost one player and we gained one new player," Armer said. "Everyone's just a year stronger, a year faster, a year taller."
When the season opens against the Pirates on Thursday it will feel just about the same for the Canes. They'll be loose through warm-ups and be ready to make another run at a state championship in head coach Tony Cothron's second year at the helm.
The 2015 season always looked like the year Manatee was building to. It was just supposed to culminate with a state title. Now it could end even better.
"A lot of people said, 'They weren't even supposed to get that far last year,'" Armer said. "We're here to prove them wrong, to prove that we're the team to beat."