PONTE VEDRA – They will go down as the greatest team in the history of Viera High volleyball.
But every great season has to come to an end eventually.
And for the Viera Hawks, that end came Saturday in the Class 6A state semifinals against a Ponte Vedra team that is ranked No. 1 overall in the state and No. 3 in the nation by Max Preps.
They trailed early in every set. They came back in every set. But in the end, it was the Sharks (29-1) who came away with a 25-16, 25-17, 25-16 victory.
“They didn’t let us have a second of slack,” Viera senior Kelly Merz said. “In previous games, we could have those moments where we have a shanked pass or an off set and maybe we could somehow still get the kill. But that wasn’t the case with them.
“They’re an amazing team. They won state (the last two years) in 5A and they moved up to our classification. I think we could have played better, but we did what we could. I’m just proud of my team for even making it this far.”
After years of being labeled as a team with potential that couldn’t break through, the Hawks won their first district championship in 10 years. Then they beat Winter Springs in the quarterfinals for the first regional playoff victory in program history.
Then they went on the road and came back from a 2-1 deficit to beat Lakeland in five sets in the semifinals. That set up another road game against top-seeded New Smyrna Beach where the Hawks won the first two sets, lost the next two and then pulled it out in five for their first regional championship.
As much as it hurt, there was no shame at all in losing to a Ponte Vedra team that boasts at least four players committed to Division I schools and has won three state championships in the past four years.
“It’s a bad ending, but this is a great team,” Merz said. “We were just talking about how we set the bar higher for all teams to come at Viera. I’m just glad we could do that.
“We’ve talked about changing our culture and we finally did. I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of my fellow seniors, especially Hannah Bradford. Her and I have had a lot of talks, trying to figure out what we can do to make our team better. We did it, finally.”
With Ponte Vedra leading 23-16 in the third set, Bradford approached junior Sydney Williams. The two teammates hugged and smiled.
“Me and Sydney have been playing together since we were 8 years old,” Bradford said. “I think we just said these could be our last two points playing together, so let’s just give it everything we have an enjoy the moment.”
Williams led the Hawks (17-10) with 11 kills. She also had two aces, three digs and three total blocks.
Junior Mak Carter had seven kills, three aces, two assists, three digs and three total blocks. Freshman Kaley Beigh was next with four kills and one total block. Senior Angie Durso had two kills, one dig and one total block. Sophomore Mallory Merz had two kills, 17 assists and six digs.
Bradford had one kill, one ace, three assists and eight digs. Sophomore Kasey Morgan had one assist and four digs. Kelly Merz had a dig.
“They are a great team, all around,” Carter said. “I’m just happy with how we played. We competed really well. I think we all agree that we did everything that we could. We put our hearts out on the floor.”
It was the final game in a Viera uniform for seniors Bradford, Kelly Merz, Durso, Hannah Carpenter and Melissa Faber.
Viera coach Sarah Wayne told her players she was proud of them, especially the seniors and challenged the underclassmen to continue to work hard and take the mantle.
“I’m just proud of the day-to-day work that they put in, the effort that they put in and the leadership,” Wayne said of her seniors. “There’s no way we would have been where we were had they not done those key ingredients.
“I said every time you come back to Viera High School, 2021 will be up there (on the banner) for you to see and you’ll know you were a part of that.”
Understandably, emotions were a little raw following the match as the seniors contemplated the end of their high school careers.
“It was more than I thought it would be,” Kelly Merz said. “Coach Wayne’s great. These girls are great. I love Viera. Viera’s in my blood.”
Bradford, who like Kelly Merz, has been playing on the varsity team since her freshman year also couldn’t say enough about her time at Viera.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” Bradford said. “We have an amazing coaching staff. I feel so blessed to have been able to play for this program for four years.
“It makes it that much tougher to leave, but I know we have some amazing underclassmen that will take over this program and are going to go so far.”
Those underclassmen include Williams; Mallory Merz; Beigh; Morgan; Hailey Hubbard; Audia Freckleton; Kendal Mcclenahan; Amelia Talbott and Ariana Menyfield.
It will not, however, include Carter, who is moving to Tennessee.
“The bond that I built with these girls … we’re all best friends,” Carter said. “We love seeing each other every day, practicing together, playing together. I’m going to miss them so much when I move.”
What Carter didn’t know at the time was that her teammates had all written her letters and put them in a box, which they planned to give her when they got back to campus.
That just goes to show you what kind of team this is.
No matter where life takes them, they will always have the bonds of friendship and the memories of what they created together this season … a season like no other in Viera volleyball history.
“It’s finally settled in for me,” Carter said. “Even winning regionals and winning districts, it didn’t hit me until now.
“We are the best team in history, and that’s a lot. That means so much.”