Wolves hungry for state title, but road will be tough


St. Francis outside hitter Allison Benton, left, and libero Ann Lorrayne Bzoch are two key returners for St. Francis and coach Nick Cheronis heading into the 2013 season.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 6:55 p.m.

Just because a volleyball team reaches the state final a year ago and returns 10 seniors this season doesn't mean smooth sailing into November for another shot at the big prize.

That's the message St. Francis coach Nick Cheronis has been reminding his experienced and talented Wolves as they prepare for the 2013 season.

A year ago, St. Francis took a major step in its program when the Wolves topped P.K. Yonge for the district title and shocked the state when it downed state power Maclay 3-0 in Tallahassee in the regional finals to reach the school's first final four in Kissimmee.

An emotionally-draining 3-2 win over Clearwater Central Catholic put St. Francis in the state final, the school's first-ever title bid for any sport. Those championship dreams were dashed by Orlando First Academy, which collected its fifth straight state title.

Understandably, the Wolves want to get back. But Cheronis, who enters his third year at St. Francis after 18 years as UF's assistant volleyball coach, knows well the road to get there, like it was a year ago, won't be easy.

“They are very motivated to try to get back. The thing they have to realize is that it is going to be different than last year,” said Cheronis, who recently return from a trip to Thailand where, as an assistant coach to the U.S. Girls' Youth National Volleyball Team, he won a historic silver medal, the country's first medal for either gender to win a world championship medal at the junior level.

“It will be difficult because athletes tend to see the end and not focus on the process,” he said. “It's difficult to focus on the process of being a good team. Even though you have a lot of people coming back, you will not do things the same way. Each team has to be successful in their own way. It's a new team with new leadership, they have to find their own way of winning.”

The Wolves return three all-area players in outside hitter Allison Benton, libero Ann Lorrayne Bzoch and setter Farah Rajaee. Other senior starters back are opposite/setter Paige Stockman, middle blockers Becca Davis and Charly Coogan, and opposite Christine Sack.

Cheronis says everyone of his players are critical to the success of the program.

“It is really difficult to single one of them out,” he said. “They will all have to play a pretty critical role if we are to repeat.”

With P.K. Yonge moving up to Class 4A in volleyball, St. Francis is the clear favorite in District 3-3A, which includes Oak Hall, Orange Park St. Johns Country Day and St. Augustine St. Joseph. The Wolves face a challenging schedule that includes state powers Orlando First Academy, Tampa Berkeley Prep, Jacksonville Providence and Tallahassee John Paul II. There are also matches against the best locally with Newberry, Cornerstone and a pair against 7A state semifinalist Buchholz, who they host in the season opener on Tuesday.

“Certainly the competition we have on our schedule will challenge us all along the way,” Cheronis said. “I'm not concerned about getting ready for the state playoffs. We do have a chance, only if they are willing to invest and have a passion for the process.”

Many area schools open their season today while others start later this week. There are eight new coaches, including at Buchholz (former UF player Jacque Robinson Huggins) and P.K. Yonge (Chad Davis). Cari Martin enters her 26th year at Oak Hall while Michele Faulk starts her 21st at Santa Fe.

Lafayette, winners of consecutive 1A state titles, has won 43 straight matches.

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