Tampa Bay Juniors 18 Black coach Randy Dagostino veered off the path well-traveled this season – and it paid huge dividends.
Instead of going to AAU Nationals prior to Junior Nationals as in years past, Dagostino decided to enter his team into the Puerto Rico National Championships.
He did so because AAU Nationals and Junior Nationals fell so closely together this year.
“It’s something we’ve never done before,” said Dagostino. “There was one day between AAU and Junior Nationals – that’s two four-day tournaments. We decided we weren’t going to do that. Puerto Rico gave us a week-and-a-half before Junior Nationals. When we got back we still had five days to do more training and relax ourselves. We were mentally and physically ready to go into Junior Nationals.”
It showed. Tampa Bay did not lose a match, going 10-0 and winning the 18 Open national title in Columbus, Ohio.
“Some of those teams we played against at Junior Nationals that had gone to AAU were playing 12 to 13 matches in a four-day time frame,” said Dagostino.
Not only did Dagostino use the Puerto Rico tournament—which Tampa Bay won in the 23-and-under division—to help with its physical and mental preparedness, but he also made sure the team focused on two critical skills he knew would come into play in Columbus.
“We wanted to get better at serving and serve-receive, and we used that tournament to become the best serving team we could be,” he said. “We took everybody out of rhythm. We had the ability to serve tough in all six rotations. Without a doubt we were the best serve-receive team at Junior Nationals. Those are not sexy things, but it is what it is.”
Dagostino was impressed by how his team got better as matches went longer and the tournament wore on.
“It was almost like it was scripted,” he said. “A team would play us tough for 11 or 12 points and then we would go on a spurt and open it up. By the third day, we were beating teams 25-10 and 25-12. That doesn’t happen at Junior Nationals.”
Dagostino, who retired as Tampa Berkeley Prep’s longtime and successful girls’ coach after last season, noted his team evolved as the club season wore on.
Tampa Bay needed to replace five players from last year’s team that took fifth in the nation. Four of the five came from Pinellas County in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area (all returning players were from Hillsborough County). The Pinellas group included Megan Burgess (MB, now playing at Binghamton), Marissa Lisenbee (RS, now playing at the University of Tampa), Nikki O’Rourke (libero, now playing at Florida), and Brittnay Estes (OH, now playing at Lipscomb). The fifth newcomer was Berkeley’s Sidney Brown who is now a junior and was the only underclassman on the team this year.
Those five girls combined with returners Mackenzie Dagostino (S, now playing at Maryland), Jordan Burgess (OH, 2011 Mizuno/Volleyball Girls’ High School Player of the Year now playing at Stanford), Sarah Burrington (MB, now playing at Florida State), and Star Steele (S, now at the U.S. Naval Academy) to form a team that went a combined 76-3 this year.
“We had a core group of girls that had played with each other for multiple seasons and we had five new people,” said Dagostino. “The consistent theme throughout the course of the year was the girls getting to know each other. We knew we had very good personnel that had played in big matches and knew how to react in big matches. We learned quite quickly that when this group ran on all cylinders, it would be very tough to beat.”
What surprised Dagostino somewhat was the degree of the team’s success.
“I thought we had a talented group going into the season,” he said. “But if someone would have told me at the beginning of the season that we would have the season we had and go 76-3, I would never have guessed we would be as dominant as we were, especially at Junior Nationals.”
At Junior Nationals, Tampa Bay went 20-1 in sets and held teams to less than 20 points in a non-tiebreaker set 13 times. Laguna Beach MS 18-1 was the only team to take a set off Tampa Bay, which defeated Front Range 18 Black (25-14, 25-17) in the semifinals and Sky High 18 Black (25-17, 25-19) in the finals. That meant Tampa Bay won its final two key matches of the tournament by an average of seven points a set.
“By the time we got to Junior Nationals and were playing there, did I think we were the best team? Yes, we were,” he said. “It was a little surprising how consistently we played to where we were always able to exploit the weakness of the opponent and they weren’t able to do that to us.”
Dagostino said the team was led throughout the year by the marquee names such as his daughter, Mackenzie, and Jordan Burgess. Burgess was named the tournament MVP and was joined on the all-tournament team by Mackenize Dagostino and Burrington.
“Everybody probably had their best tournament at Junior Nationals,” Coach Dagostino said. “Sidney Brown, by far, had her best tournament. Marissa was unstoppable. Sarah Burrington had a very good tournament. She blocked everybody. Nikki O’Rourke was extremely solid at libero. We were a good team and everybody, for whatever reasons, felt comfortable going into Junior Nationals and played like good volleyball players.”
Mackenzie Dagostino credits the team’s strong comradery as one of the main reasons it won the national title.
“We have great chemistry together,” she said. “This team was put together specifically to win a national championship. The girls that were chosen to be on the team did exactly what they needed to do and worked well together with the same goal in mind.”
Dagostino agreed with her father that the trip to Puerto Rico did wonders for the team.
“Puerto Rico was very important to us,” she said. “We needed to see a different type of play and experience it. Playing against girls there that were that experienced and that age showed us the parts of our games we thought we had down pat still needed work.”
Tampa Bay finished fifth at Colorado Crossroads this year, losing in the quarterfinals to Vision. It won Big South (downing Orange County in the finals) and won the Northeast qualifier where it beat Sky High in the semifinals and Sunshine in the finals.
“If you do the fundamental things better than your opponent, you will usually come out on top,” said Dagostino.
Originally published in November 2012