WINTER HAVEN - Everyone kind of figured that the Class 5A title game would feature three of the best hitters in Florida all patrolling above the net creating fireworks and drama, but it was …
WINTER HAVEN - Everyone kind of figured that the Class 5A title game would feature three of the best hitters in Florida all patrolling above the net creating fireworks and drama, but it was Middleburg High's three-man frontal attack; Connor Rahn (2nd in 5A, 425 Kills), Brooke Forkum (4th in 5A, 373 Kills) and Camden Rahn (three double-digit kill games in playoffs), that neutralized the threat and gave first-year head coach Meredith Forkum the Class 5A title over Barron Collier High out of Naples Thursday afternoon in Winter Haven. Barron Collier, last year's runner-up to Jensen Beach, got the better of Jensen Beach in their semifinal to advance while Middleburg handled a game Merrit Island team, 3-1, to advance.
"We were well aware of their girl upfront; senior hitter Aisha Keric (3rd in 5A, 413 Kills), and that she would be formidable," said Bronco first-year head coach Meredith Forkum, who followed a 40-year career of mentor Carrie Prewitt on the Bronco sideline in getting that elusive title despite Prewitt's six trips to the Final Four with two championship runner-up finishes. "Our approach was to play our game, move the ball around quickly and try to defend her the best we could."
With her three-man wrecking crew up front delivering 25, 14 and 10 scoring bolts in the 3-0 win (25-23, 25-17, 25-23) Forkum's strategy proved fateful to Keric's game-leading 27 scoring kills. The difference was Barron Collier's second and third hitters only delivered four and three kills to supplement Keric's efforts.
"The key to our strategy was setter Olivia Callipo who was reading their defense and putting the ball in play to the best hitter in position," said Forkum, with assistants Kory Camp and Tony Valentin. "She had a great game at the net and Kate Lowery had a great game blocking or deterring much of Keric's attack."
Forkum's first season proved magnified by the aura of former coach Carrie Prewitt's contribution to the program's strong history.
"I got lucky with the right group of kids, a good schedule of matchups and a little luck," said Forkum. "Coach Prewitt set the standard but had some bad luck in some of her Final Fours (food poisoning in 2003 finals). I talked to Coach Prewitt and she was overjoyed. She told me she was at peace and happy for the whole team and where the program is going."
Forkum gave kudos to the Middleburg softball team that had followed the volleyball team throughout the journey.
"They were like our biggest fans," said Forkum. "Ashley (Houston, softball coach, first team state title for Middleburg) knows the value of a team spirit and her girls were awesome."
Against Merritt Island, won 25-20, 25-17, 16-25 and 25-20, Forkum got some bench inspiration help from sophomore libero Morgan Padgett who noticed the team's face were a little mopey after the third game loss.
"Morgan, who has played lights out the second half of the season, noticed and said something that they were not smiling and having fun out there," said Forkum. "Sometimes the team tends to think too much about the game at hand and the fun of it all gets away from them. She made a pretty good statement about it and the team responded. I just let it happen because I could not have said it better."
After their third game loss, 25-16, Middleburg responded with a 25-20 final game to propel themselves into the final.
Rahn led the attack with 15 kills, but Forkum was equally formidable with 14 kills on her left hand. Camden Rahn added seven.
"Merrit Island was the hardest serving team we have ever seen," said Forkum. "We had a little trouble getting the ball to the net, but we figured it out."
Barron Collier, 26-7, got up by as much as 17-13 in game one to put a slight pause in the Bronco enthusiasm, but a double-edged sword of attack from Padgett serves and two blocks from Callipo flipped the momentum to Middleburg and the game got tied at 20-20 before a huge block by Camden Rahn ignited a five-point winning swing to 25-23 with Forkum delivering the final blow.
"They were staying close to us in all three games and we just had to settle down after that game one to get into our game," said Forkum. "We got to a point where we were just tipping the ball and I told them we need to start swinging away."
In the second game, Barron Collier kept pushing Keric to the net, but it was laser-like serves from Kendyl Wahl that backed up the Barron Collier defense and kept Keric a foot or two away from her spot at the net.
"Kendyl has been our momentum shift most of the season with her serves to control the pace of the game," said Forkum. "Because their girl was six foot tall, she would have had more strikes if she was closer to the net. Kendyl's serves forced them to set up a foot or two off her mark and we had the defense set up waiting for her."
With Middleburg holding a two-point edge most of the game; at least to a 14-14 tie, Connor Rahn took over the domination end of the Bronco attack with a seven scores in 10-point swing from above the net.
"Hey, she's the top hitter out there and she wanted to assert herself," said Forkum. "I think she took the signing for a scholarship the night before (to the University of Tampa) as a big proving point for her game."
Rahn's A-10-like scorching of Barron Collier's defense pushed the game to a 25-17 win.
In game three, Rahn opened with a massive swing to open up the contest then Middleburg shifted to Camden Rahn getting shots on the opposite end of the net to put the Broncos up 14-9 and cause Barron Collier to take a time-out and catch their breath.
"I had to settle them in to finish the game and not look ahead to the celebration," said Forkum. "I don't think they wanted to play a fourth game, but we still had to finish."