Alex Karcher isn’t one to talk about herself. She’ll tell you she’s “more of a team person.”
But as the Gulf Breeze senior prepares for her final high school volleyball season, her stats speak for themselves: 237 kills, 107 blocks, 91 aces. And that’s just last year.
Entering her third year with the Dolphins, Karcher, 17, was one of the key pieces to help carry the District 1-5A volleyball powerhouse to two consecutive trips to the state final four in 2010 and ’11.
Last year’s season ended in disappointment for the Dolphins when they fell to Jacksonville Bishop Kenny in the Region 1-5A championship game.
But a lot has changed for the Dolphins, and more changes are in store this season for Karcher and the team. Dolphins head coach Waynn Sellers, however, is sure that at least one thing will remain true.
“Alex Karcher is going to be phenomenal this year,” Sellers said. “She is gonna be something special I think. She’s the type of player who can play all positions, and everything she does is on a high level.”
At a recent practice, Karcher said she was excited for the season to start and hopes that the team can make it at least as far as it did last year. She also knows what this season is going to mean.
“It’s going to mean a lot,” she said. “It’s the last one, so I’ve got to make the best of it.”
Now, just a day away from the first game of the season, Karcher and the Dolphins are about to find out what’s going to be different about this year. And they’ll find out fairly quickly.
The Dolphins will host Choctawhatchee in Tuesday’s season-opening game. Gulf Breeze played the Indians once last year, but this year, Choctaw will be a district opponent. The Indians return to District 1-5A after stepping down to 4A in the 2009-2010 season. Mosley is coming into District 1-5A as well, while West Florida is dropping down to 4A. So while the Dolphins still come into the season as the district favorites, they’ll have to overcome new teams if they hope to win a fifth consecutive district title.
Karcher will find herself in new territory as well. For most of her volleyball career, Karcher has played middle hitter. This year, however, she’ll move to the outside to be someone the Dolphins can look toward to terminate the ball.
On the whole, the Dolphins are a different team from the one that’s been so dominant in recent years. Gulf Breeze graduated six seniors last year, including notable names like Ally Hurd, Anna Bailey and Caitlin Chapman, the 2012 News Journal Volleyball Player of the Year. They’ll have seven seniors filling those spots this year, but only three returning starters in Karcher, Mollie Johnson and Sage Dunne.
“We don’t have enough playing time,” Sellers said. “Some of these girls were in the state playoffs, but they were were on the bench. They don’t have the floor time. It’ll all be about how they react. They’re going to have to learn when they make a mistake, that it’s just a mistake, and they have to go on to the next play. There’s no time to huddle and talk things over in volleyball. Overcoming adversity is going to be the biggest concern.”
One sore spot for the Dolphins as they begin the season will be that of 6-foot-2 senior Emily Arnold, whom Sellers said could have been “a serious X factor.” But Arnold dislocated her ankle in summer practice and likely will be out until mid September at the earliest.
As with every new team, the Dolphins’ success this year will depend on how well the individual players are able to come together and work as a cohesive unit. To that end, Sellers said he is confident he has got a good bunch.
“We’re always putting a finger on the pulse,” Sellers said. “And it’s been great. They’re all real supportive of each other. There’s no jealousy. There’s not one person out there who can play by themselves. It’s going to take all 14 of us, always does.”
A shifting landscape
The Dolphins won’t be the only team to face new district opponents this year. In fact, this season will see movement in nearly every district featuring a local team.
District 1-6A, which has long been the home of most Pensacola area teams, will shrink from seven teams to five as Navarre and Tate move up to 7A, joining Niceville, Crestview and Fort Walton Beach.
The Pace Patriots were the darlings of 6A last year. They went 14-0 in district play and appeared poised to make a run into the postseason until they were shocked by Lynn Haven Mosley in regional quarterfinals. They’ll look to regroup this year.
The Patriots will still have offensive standouts Emili Jordan and Brooklynn Roberts, but will miss power players Sarah Elizabeth Harrell and Rachel Moorer, among others.
Jaguars to 4A
Last season, for the first time in 17 years, the Catholic Crusaders did not win the District 1-4A title.
Despite going undefeated in district play during the regular season, the Crusaders fell to Walton in the district title game. It wasn’t the inaugural season coach Guillio Simenelli had hoped for. The Crusaders will be looking to regain their usual dominance this year.
To do it, they’ll not only have to contend with district regulars Walton and Marianna, but also 4A newbie West Florida, which moved down from 5A.
Perhaps the most changed district of all this year will be 1-1A, previously home to Central, Baker, Jay, Northview and Laurel Hill.
But this season, the Royals, Gators and Chiefs all have been reassigned to 3-1A, along with Chipley, Freeport and Holmes County.
Left in 1-1A are Central, Laurel Hill and Bethlehem.
Baker was the standout of last year’s Class 1A, beating Chipley in the region finals to reach the state semifinals.
With five returning seniors, it’s possible that Baker will establish command of the new grouping, but 1A will be a district to watch.