BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Florida is more than 65 thousand square miles, but a 25 mile stretch of the Panhandle often determines who makes it to the state championship in volleyball.
Sarah Shuler leaps at the net during Blountstown volleyball practice.
Blountstown always finds itself in the postseason mix, facing six-time state champ Sneads in the playoffs four of the last six years and making the 1A final four in 2018.
The Tigers ought to be a contender again, but this season and schools will be like none other.
The middle and high schools are combined, some classrooms in portables.
The high school gym is still unusable, it too ravaged by Hurricane Michael. Fighting for playing time, the middle school, JV, and varsity volleyball teams are all practicing together under a temporary roof at the middle school gym.
It's hectic. It's stressful. But at the same time...this sport is what they love and there's nothing else they'd rather be doing.
"One of my seniors told me at the beginning of summer conditioning that it didn't matter where we played, she just wanted to be able to have her senior season," head coach Leigh Ann Summers recalled. "So we're here. We get to play volleyball. That's what we want to do. We're going to wake up. We're going to play volleyball. It doesn't matter where."
The outside stress is still a lot to handle for many families, added on top of an already crammed school experience. This is the new normal, but volleyball is still the old normal, and that's a good thing.
"For most of us, it's the comfort zone," right side hitter and middle blocker Kendall Hatchett said. "You get to hit. If you're angry about something, you get to relieve that stress and anger on the ball. You get to come around the girls. It's really a bond, a sisterhood really. It's just really comfortable and exciting to be back on the court."
Led by senior outside hitter Sarah Shuler, junior libero Sidney Eubanks and the aforementioned Hatchett, Blountstown returns a core group of talent used to being successful.
They're also used to coming up just short of their ultimate goal: a state championship. This year, their goals remain unchanged despite the turmoil around them.
"We still get a chance like everyone else to play," Shuler said. "There shouldn't be any reason why we don't win games or why we don't do as good as we're supposed to."
"They talk about it," Summers said about their aspirations. "They know where they want to be, and they want to play in the state championship game. They're not afraid to say it now and they're not afraid to work for it. That's something that I think has kind of changed in our program. We talk about it and they work towards it, and we're getting more out of them in the year to get into that postseason."
The Tigers open the season August 20th against Arnold.
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