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Strong season ends for Okeechobee as Brahmans look toward promising future

Okeechobee’s Elle Thomas delivers a serve in a Class 5A regional quarterfinal against Archbishop McCarthy on Oct. 21, 2020, in Southwest Ranches. (Kevin Johnson photo)

SOUTHWEST RANCHES – After one final team huddle and a last “one, two, three, ‘Chobee” cheer, the Okeechobee High School volleyball team said goodbye to a season like no other.

The Brahmans were swept by host Archbishop McCarthy High School on Oct. 21 in a Class 5A regional quarterfinal in Broward County’s Southwest Ranches. The scores were 25-20, 25-12, 25-19.

Due to transportation issues, including poor weather and heavy traffic, Okeechobee’s bus arrived at the McCarthy gym just two minutes before the 7 p.m. scheduled start. The team was allowed to warm up and the match started 30 minutes late.

Regardless of the late arrival and the match’s outcome, Okeechobee was just grateful to have had a season to play and an FHSAA postseason to compete in, which came seven months after the high school spring sports season abruptly ceased as the Covid-19 pandemic began its grip on Florida and the rest of the U.S.

Okeechobee’s Jaclyn Pearce sets the ball as Elle Thomas gets ready for a kill attempt in a Class 5A regional quarterfinal against Archbishop McCarthy on Oct. 21, 2020, in Southwest Ranches. (Kevin Johnson photo)

“I’m just happy we got to have a season,” said Okeechobee coach Taylor Padrick. “I’m glad people went out of their way to make sure it happened because I know that there was talk about it being shut down completely. Super thankful we got to have a season, even if it was brief.”

“It was good; it was just kind of off because of Covid. It kind of threw everything off, but it was all right,” said junior Elle Thomas, the only Seminole on this year’s varsity squad.

Despite the obstacles posed by the pandemic, the Brahmans made the most of their time on the court as they finished with a winning record (9-6), which included six shutouts, earned runner-up in their district and a spot in the regional quarterfinals. Most importantly, they made it through the season healthy while the pandemic continues its global presence.

“It was very weird,” said Padrick, who completed her eighth season at the helm of the squad. “I’m glad nobody got sick. I’m glad we did all the precautionary things. I think at the beginning nobody really knew what was going to happen, and as the season went on and we got used to what was happening it kind of became normalish.”

Camaraderie on the bench was far different compared to normal seasons. Usually players scrunch together as they loudly cheer for their teammates, but social distancing guidance meant chairs were lined up in two rows with no one sitting within touching distance of each other.

Okeechobee’s Ashley Phares sends the ball over the net against Archbishop McCarthy on Oct. 21, 2020. (Kevin Johnson photo)

“We had to be so far away from everyone, so you can’t be as excited,” Thomas said.

Additionally, in the McCarthy match just about everyone in the gym, except the players, wore masks. Those who covered up included the approximately 40 spectators and all four officials.

On the court, Okeechobee endured a slow start losing the first four points in game one before freshman Sydney Matthews, a former Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School student and the younger sister of current Florida Southern College player Raeley Matthews, settled the Brahmans down with a kill and three consecutive service points. McCarthy reeled off five straight points to take a 16-11 lead and went on to win by five.

Game two was the only one that wasn’t close. McCarthy built a 17-5 lead on its way to taking a 2-0 lead in games.

Faced with the 2-0 deficit, a two-hour bus ride back home and school the next day, Okeechobee could have easily let its season end quietly, but the Brahmans dug down and gamely fought to keep their season alive in game three. Seven times the Brahmans pulled to within a point of McCarthy, but each time McCarthy answered with a kill or ace to maintain its lead, eventually pulling away late to complete the sweep and up its record to 8-2 heading into the regional semifinals. 

Okeechobee played from behind nearly all night and never got into an offensive rhythm of winning more than four consecutive points.

For health reasons, there were no traditional hand-slaps between the teams at the net before or after the match, only a few nods of the head in each other’s direction from afar.

Okeechobee can build on its learning experiences from the match and the season. The team loses three seniors (Mattie Garcia, Piper Hans and Jessie Lashley), but will return a strong core of eight players from the class of 2022, including Thomas.

“We’ll be senior-heavy next year, and they’re going to be solid,” Padrick said.

 Thomas, a versatile player who can play up front or in the back, will be one of the senior leaders.

“Elle is great,” Padrick said. “She’s got a great attitude. She’s super determined. Recently, she’s not playing in the front row, but she nails that back line and does a great job defending. She has a fire that she gets excited and she gets the girls excited. She’s good. I’m glad she’ll be back next year.”

Okeechobee players sit apart from each other Oct. 21, 2020, as part of safety guidelines due to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Kevin Johnson photo)

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