Lady ’Cane Grace Leffler (15) goes up on the attack in a 2022 match against Marathon. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

It’s time for bumps, sets and spikes again in the Florida Keys.

Though the Coral Shores Hurricanes graduated quite a few seniors last season, head coach Sam Ovalle feels confident that his team can adjust and be very competitive. Last season, they took an early lead in the district championship game, but ultimately fell to Palmer Trinity School. This season, the team hopes to make it to the finals again and reclaim the top spot in the district, which they held two seasons ago. 

Returning to the court for Coral Shores is multiyear all-county athlete Brooke Mandozzi. “We expect her to have another great season for us,” Ovalle said. He also named Grace Leffler, Crystal Gutierrez and Iona Holmquist as key returners, describing them as ”huge contributors” last year. He expects more of the same from them this season.  

Joining the veterans for the Hurricanes are Sophia Jans, Ivy Tiedemann and Sabina Naranjo. Though newcomers to the varsity squad, all are stepping it up to make Coral Shores look to be a strong competitor this year. 

Ovalle is rather new to the team, himself. “I took over a few weeks into the season, so we only had the chance to do so much,” he said. “Between the girls we have coming back and the extra time we have, I’m excited to add some more plays and do some different things because I think this group is well-rounded and very capable.” 

In the Middle Keys, head coach Kelley Cruz is working to prepare her team for a more challenging schedule. Though Marathon graduated six seniors last season, Cruz said she has plenty of players ready to shoulder the load, explaining, “We had a large senior class last year and will have a large senior class this year. So having all players who played last year come back has a large impact.”

A key piece for the Dolphins this season will be incoming junior Elena Eubank, Marathon’s top female athlete last year. 

“Elena Eubank isn’t young, but she continues to bring the fire. She challenges all the players on the court to become better players,” Cruz said. 

Key West’s Lady Conchs should reap the benefits of a challenging schedule last season. They played over 20 matches, many against larger teams, and the experience the returning roster gained from facing the level of talent they played against in 2022 should give the Conchs an edge this season. It doesn’t hurt that they graduated only two seniors. 

Returning for Key West are a slew of key players, many of whom have already seen extensive action in multiple seasons. Key West is jam-packed with seniors this year, including Elise Warwick, Victoria Pavlik, Annie Scepkova, Monica Jaroszewicz and Lyla Holland. Juniors Reese Haggard and Monica Bueno were key contributors last season and look to be even better in 2023. Another positive factor for Key West is the return of  Bridgette Sweeney, who saw limited action last year due to an injury-plagued junior campaign. The seasoned senior adds height to the Lady Conchs’ blocking and has been a contributor since her freshman year. 

Two Keys teams are set for some early action on Aug. 17 when Coral Shores heads down U.S. 1 to play a friendly preseason match against the Lady Fins of Marathon. Key West has a pair of preseason matches scheduled, both on the road. Marathon will play their first official match on Aug. 21 at Somerset Silver Palms. Coral Shores will then face Silver Palms at home on Aug. 23 in their opener. Key West’s first scheduled regular season match is Aug. 29 at Mater Lakes.

Tracy McDonald fled to the Keys from the frozen mountains of Pennsylvania hours after graduating from college and never looked back. She is a second generation coach and educator, and has taught in the public school system for over 25 years. She and her husband met at a beginning teacher meeting in 1997 and have three children born and raised in Monroe County. In her free time, McDonald loves flea markets, historical fiction and long runs in the heat.