When Stefanie Betz departed the Venice High coaching staff to become the Out-of-Door Academy head volleyball coach, she did not just want to win. She also aspired to build a program.
The Thunder are showing signs of becoming a winning program.
Appearing in its third straight district final, second-seeded Out-of-Door captured its second straight title, defeating top-seed Sarasota Christian, 3-0, in the Class 3A-District 5 title match by carving out a 25-15, 25-22, 25-20 win Thursday night at the Blazers gym.
Tuesday, the Thunder (15-11) will be home for a regional semifinal match, while Sarasota Christian (18-8) will be on the road.
“For me, being at ODA is all about trying to sustain success year after year, so this is huge for us,” Betz said. “I really wanted this to become the new norm, and this year was the first time it really felt like our new normal: We play in district championships, we’re gonna win district championships.
“The kids are playing great. The school has bought in. It’s awesome.”
To prepare the Thunder for district play, Betz scheduled bigger and tougher opponents to show her players the increased speed of the match on that level.
“I challenge them to play to that speed, so when we come back and play in district games, we’re playing twice as fast as everybody else,” Betz said. “We did a great job of executing that tonight.”
The Thunder took command early, erasing a 2-0 deficit with eight straight points, half on aces by eighth-grader Hannah Wahl, and never looked back in the first set rout.
The second set appeared on the same path, as Out-of-Door stormed to an 11-2 advantage. For the first time in the match, Sarasota Christian showed signs of life and got to within 14-12.
“I knew they were going to be scrappy and keep throwing stuff back over the net,” Betz said of the Blazers.
The Thunder never relinquished the lead, taking advantage of Blazers’ miscues down the stretch.
“They’re a good team. Our goal is to keep them out of system and serve aggressive,” Sarasota Christian coach Kim Scott said. “We served well, but we didn’t keep them out of system.”
The Blazers were in the third set until late. Out-of-Door broke a 16-all tie with a block and kill from sophomore Shelby Fulton. Junior BreAnn Brown picked up a couple of aces in a 6-0 run that virtually put the match away. Senior Adelaide Mahler’s kill ended it.
“I told them after the game there were moments where we were wavering in our confidence,” Betz said. “They’ve got to play through those ebbs and flows and just fake it and fake that confidence until they get another big swing.”
Mahler led the Thunder with 12 kills and a block. Fulton chipped in with nine kills and four blocks. Wahl finished with six aces and five digs. Freshman setter Ansley White dished off 28 assists.
“All year, kind of notoriously with small schools, you have a mix of younger kids and older kids,” Betz said. “We have five seniors, but we’ll have two freshmen and two sophomores on the court at the same time for most of the match.”
Freshman Hailey Knapp and junior Caitlin Wagler had five kills each for Sarasota Christian, which defeated the Thunder, 3-2, during the regular season.
“They’re big at the net and our advantage would be to keep them out of system,” Scott said. “We just weren’t successful in doing that this time. We served well against them before and we were able to keep them out of system. They were setting it high and tight at the net and going over us.”