For Ocean Lakes girls’ volleyball, bonding leads to winning

The Ocean Lakes girls’ volleyball team didn’t have the patience to wait until mid-August to start prepping for the upcoming season.

Ocean Lakes seniors from left to right: Ellen Westlie, Simona Gonzalez, Taylor Allbritten, Kelly Smith, Sabrina Gonzalez, Lauren Zell. (Joe Saade/ Southside Daily).
Ocean Lakes seniors from left to right: Ellen Westlie, Simona Gonzalez, Taylor Allbritten, Kelly Smith, Sabrina Gonzalez, Lauren Zell. (Joe Saade/ Southside Daily).

Their defeat last fall to Madison in the 6A state semifinals left an itch the players couldn’t wait to scratch.

So the seniors held their own version of preseason — in July.

The Dolphins drove to Sandbridge Beach at 8 a.m. every Friday and set up their own volleyball nets. They held workouts, scrimmaged on the sand and — after a couple of hours of hard work — just hung out.

“We couldn’t wait to be back together,” said Kelly Smith, the senior libero. “The way last year ended, we were even more excited.”

The players led the initiative; they didn’t need to be commanded by their coach, Jack Wheeler.

When the Dolphins showed up to their first open gym session in August, Wheeler was pleasantly surprised with what he saw.

“It was weird,” he said. “Usually after some time off it takes a couple of weeks to get the timing down. That first practice, they were up and running like it’s the middle of the season.”

“Everything just clicked,” he said.

They’ve been clicking ever since.

Ocean Lakes bolted to a 14-3 start and are second in the 6A Coastal Conference standings behind Kellam (18-2).

The Dolphins returned five starters and a majority of role players from last season’s deep run who have fueled the motivated start.

Asked about his team’s strength, Wheeler answered with no hesitation: depth.

Offensively, the Dolphins are led by 6-foot-4 middle hitter Danielle Hart. The junior Virginia Tech commit has emerged as one of the most dominating players in the state.

Junior setter Kiersten Honig has the luxury of options to spread the ball around. Senior hitters Lauren Zell, Taylor Allbritten, LeeAnne Dean and Sabrina Gonzalez command the weak and outside spots. Smith leads the defense, alongside fellow senior Simona Gonzalez and junior Jazelle Mangosing.

During practice, the Dolphins’ second team gives the starters fits.

“It doesn’t matter who we throw in there,” Wheeler said. “They adjust and make it work.”

Wheeler has noticed a more mature, composed team that handles adversity well. His spirited seniors’ leadership has a lot to do with it.

Smith said last year’s group “crashed” mentally in the state semifinal. The post-season atmosphere got in their heads, so they vowed to return and triumph over those demons.

“We all came back knowing we can not only get back, but go further,” Zell added.

When the preseason began, Wheeler posted a sign in their gym.

“Winners don’t do different things, winners do things differently,” it said.

His players didn’t need to wait until August to get the message.

They started doing things differently well before.

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