LUTZ – For a squad that has taken home a pair of district titles in its first two years, the word “rebuilding” is unfamiliar to the Steinbrenner girls tennis team.
The Warriors (8-1) lost their No. 2 Kaleigh Wagner and Taylor Brennan to graduation after last season. However, the team adds a handful of new players and returns its No. 1 Grace Korta, who finished as a state semifinalist and was the All-Laker/All-Lutz News Player of the Year as a freshman.
Second-year coach Domenic Colangelo says the program is competitive across the board, and his team his buying into the necessary changes made after losing so many key players.
“Being that we’re in a higher district than we were last year and with the loss of so many experienced players, I’ve really focused this year on bringing all the girls up, experience wise,” Colangelo said. “We’re trying to push them beyond what they thought they were possible of, and they’ve all reacted positively and have seen some great results.”
Korta adds that while the matches won’t get any easier, the family-like atmosphere around the team is enough to keep them in the hunt for victories.
“It’s amazing to be able to be No. 1 and support the team,” said Korta, a sophomore. “As a high school tennis player it’s mainly an individual sport because you’re out there by yourself, but having the team to come together and support one another it’s definitely a good experience.”
It will be a tougher road to the district crown, as the Warriors into Class 4A-District 6. The group includes Gaither, Freedom, Wharton and last season’s state champion, Plant. Colangelo said the standards of success are set for the program, but knows the cards will have to fall in the team’s favor to claim the three-peat.
“Of course our goal is always going to be a district title,” Colangelo said. “But in the end, it’s all about the girls gaining experience and (the school) continuing to get recognized in the district and county-wide that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
After being named Steinbrenner’s top player again and gaining the experience as a freshman in last season’s Class 2A state tournament, Korta feels no doubt she can continue the program’s winning ways.
“For me, Plant is going to be really difficult to beat,” Korta said. “Blair Martin is their No. 1, so that’d be a really big accomplishment if I beat her. … If the whole team doesn’t make it, my goal is to go to states with the No. 2 for doubles.”
The fight that Colangelo sees in this team and the willingness to do everything it can to get the big wins is something he said he’s never seen before.
“Every time girls have been out, the other girls have stepped up and saved the day,” Colangelo said. “We had a match against Tampa Prep that was rain delayed and was only halfway over and we were down. When we finished the match one week later, Erica Smitten our No. 3 and Kiernan O’Keefe our No. 4 both came from down sets and won their matches and we won the day. It was my Disney miracle. … That’s been the story throughout the season and I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished.”
Colangelo said even if the squad is denied its third consecutive district championship, the season will still be special to him.
“I have to say, out of all the years I’ve coached different sports, this squad is the squad that I’m most proud of,” Colangelo said. “I like to make a difference with the athletes that I coach and these girls have gelled, bonded and pretty much done what ever I’ve asked them to do and then some. If I had to retire today, I would say I had the best squad ever and that’s the one right now.”
Jeff Odom / Sports Editor