The way Steve Stack sees it, a lot of the pressure is off his Seven Rivers Christian volleyball team.
Sure, the Warriors meet Lake Worth Christian out of Boynton Beach Friday at noon for the Class 2A state championship at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, but one thing is for sure — win or lose, this is the final game together for the team.
"It’s kind of hard to explain. We had a good team meeting (Tuesday) and we’re all on the same page," the second-year head coach said. "It seems like there’s a lot more pressure on the regional final and Final Four games, since it’s an elimination game. We know this is our last game, so you can put the stress of that away and just focus on the game. So there’s just a freedom to let it rip.
"They seemed loose in practice. They’re aware of what we’re facing and how good this team is, but they also know that if they’re playing hard, you can never count them out. They’re excited and ready for the challenge.
"Last game this group has together. Put it all on the table. And one thing I’ve found with these girls, they’ll leave every bit of heart they have on the court."
The Warriors (24-3) are playing for their first state title, while Lake Worth (26-4) is looking to add this year’s 2A crown to the 3A championship the Defenders claimed in 2015 and 2A titles won in 2011 and 2012.
Seven Rivers Christian got here with thrilling five-set victories over 2017 Class 3A state champ Christ’s Church Academy on the road in the regional finals and last year’s 2A state champ Geneva in Saturday’s epic Final Four match in Lecanto.
"They know how good of a team Geneva and Christ’s Church Academy were. To still be in it after playing two teams like that, that’s pretty encouraging," Stack said. "We just don’t know much about the teams Lake Worth had to play to get to this point.
"It’s difficult when you don’t know much about their opponents and who they’re playing, but obviously they’re legit and on a roll to be in the same game as us."
One thing Stack knows for certain, the Warriors need to find a way to slow down 6-foot 1-inch senior hitter Sarah Franklin, a Michigan State commit who has 603 kills this season and more than 2,000 for her career, which began as an eighth-grader starting for the 2015 title team.
"She definitely seems to be the focal point of their offense. Looks like she primarily plays middle, but hits everywhere at the net," Stack said.
The Warriors already had success in a similar situation against Christ’s Church Academy, defeating the Eagles and 6-foot 2-inch NCAA Div. I recruit Julia Mangum, who was held to 18 kills in the five-set match.
"They remind us an awful lot of Christ’s Church Academy. A lot of the similar game plan," Stack said of Lake Worth. "With Geneva, we were game planning for all sorts of hitters all over the place. Obviously we’re planning for that with Lake Worth, but we’re also focused on (Franklin)."
It’s far from a one-person show for the Defenders. Three other players have more than 140 kills this season, including 6-foot freshman Abigail Toeniskoetter.
The Warriors have plenty of offensive weapons of their own. Four players have more than 100 kills this season, led by Leighton Stack’s 270 and 261 by Madison Peters.
Another key to the match will be the service games for both squads. The Defenders have 411 aces on the season and the Warriors have 352. Both will be looking for quick, free points where they can get them.
With the number of power hitters and excellent servers on both sides, the liberos will be busy trying to dig balls before they hit the floor and get the offense started. Allison Phillips has a team-high 258 digs for the Warriors and Caitlyn Walters leads the way for the Defenders with 334 digs.
Setting up the hitters the majority of the time for the Warriors will be Jane Jeffes with her 698 assists. The Defenders are a little more balanced, with Parker Folino leading the way with 580 assists and Kelly Franklin with 403.
Both teams are on a roll entering Friday’s match. The Warriors have won 15 in a row since suffering all three losses in the same weekend in early September. The Defenders have knocked off nine straight opponents and won 13 of their past 14 matches.
When it comes down to it, the winner of the championship will likely be the team that is able to play like it has down the stretch better than the squad on the other side of the net.
"We’re going to focus a lot on what we do well. Run our offense and keep our defense sound and strong and eliminate the errors as much as possible," Stack said. "I’m excited just to get to the arena, get the game started and get them playing. Once it’s game time, the girls will be focused and ready to go."