After a number of close calls since their last state championship in 2015, the Jensen Beach volleyball team made it happen in 2022.
Going 29-3, the Falcons began the year with a new program record 19-match win streak and won their final nine matches without dropping a set culminating with a sweep of Barron Collier on Nov. 12 in Winter Haven.
Head coach Mike Sawtelle has taken the program through 19 years of incredible success and now with five state titles, Jensen Beach can boast one of the most impressive runs in any sport across the history of the Treasure Coast.
TCPalm asked Sawtelle and three captains from the team, 5A Player of the Year and Furman signee Lindsay Walch, senior and University of Tampa beach volleyball signee Lauren Duke and last year’s TCPalm Player of the Year, junior setter Raegan Richardson to document their memories of the entire season from start to finish in a first-person dictation mashed together by TCPalm sports reporter Bryan Cooney.
MS: The 2021 season ended abruptly last year when we lost in the Class 5A regional final in 2021 against Merritt Island. That is something that stayed with me the entire offseason, I felt that we had a team that could compete for a state title, but we didn’t get the job done. My goal was to make sure we had a team that was mentally and physically strong enough to push through a situation like that this year. We had a young, strong group coming back this season, so I felt good about that. But, during the off season one of my projected starters decided to step away from volleyball to pursue other avenues.
LW: We went into that camp not knowing how we were all going to play together. We had some new players on the team and weren't sure how we were going to mesh together. By the end of camp, we knew that it was going to be a good season. We made it all the way to the finals of the Tampa camp, which Jensen has not done for a while since we’ve been going to it. We lost to Plant, but we played amazing and the camp put us in the right direction for the season.
RR: We knew we were bound for greatness right when our season started. At our preseason Tampa team camp, it was our first time playing together as a group. The training went good, we meshed well and placed second in the tournament, beating some really solid teams. Personally, that was when I was confident that as we continued to practice together, we could do big things.
LD: The camp is definitely my favorite part of the summer. Right as we get home from all of the work we put in, the next day we start Kiddie camp and conditioning week. This is what makes the team mentality and physically tough. This is the time of the year that builds us up and proves why we can win these championships.
MS: We do our preseason conditioning camp every summer and this year, the girls came in with one goal in mind — to make it to the state finals. After a week of very tough training, we started up practice. Conditioning was the focus. The team runs a mile every day before practice to make sure that we are always the most conditioned team on the court. In our preseason tournament, we defeated Jupiter in the final which is something we have not done in several years – it was another good sign of what was to come.
Jensen Beach began the year with three sweeps of Lincoln Park Academy, John Carroll Catholic and Centennial but had a big jump in competition going to the Nike Tournament of Champions in Tampa competing against some of the state’s best.
LW: We went into this tournament very excited but kept calm because we knew we had some tough teams to face. The first day of the tournament, we went 3-0 which got us really hyped for the second day. You could tell that we all really wanted it. We played some great teams including Bishop Moore, Hagerty and Canterbury who put up really good fights, but I think at that we just outplayed all three teams.
LD: We were unstoppable. We rode such a high energy vibe during the tournament, we all came together and played our hearts out.
MS: The wins just kept coming at that Nike tournament and most of our victories were comeback wins as well. At that point, I felt that we had a team that could compete for a state championship.
RR: We stayed emotionally and physically stable as a team which helped us push through some tight three-set matches in Tampa, but the next week at our East Coast Challenge on the other hand - emotions were high as a result of social media talk going on.
LW: We went into this tournament really pumped because it was at home, and because we got to play some of our rival schools. There was a lot of hype for our game against Fort Pierce Central in the championship partially because some negative things were said about us on social media prior to the tournament, which got us all really hyped up. We ended up sweeping them to keep our winning streak going.
MS: Beating Jupiter in the semifinals and that final match against Central was a bit of a grudge match that gave us even more motivation than ever to win and both wins were straight set wins. After that tournament, our confidence was strong and the girls started to focus more on the strategies of the game.
Starting the year 15-0, Jensen Beach had a tough four-set win against another rival in South Fork and picked up wins against West Boca Raton, Vero Beach and on Oct. 3, a sweep of county rival Martin County gave the Falcons their best start ever in program history. A speed bump for their season however was on the horizon at the Swing for the Cure hosted by Bishop Moore in Orlando.
RR: Although no one expressed it, I do think we walked into that tournament a little too comfortable. That first match started, we were losing and could have easily come back if we started playing our game but were too complacent and missing a sense of urgency to push through and would go on to lose our first match of the season. Going 2-3 that weekend, the other losses of ours were the same type of story. During those matches, we were frustrated because nothing seemed to be working.
LW: That tournament showed us that we can't just walk on the court and the games will be handed to us. It served almost as a wakeup call and the feeling we had losing those matches, we never wanted to have that again.
MS: The one thing I did notice as their coach was that throughout all the difficulties that weekend, the girls never gave up, they always stayed together as a team and they would continue to cheer each other on. After that weekend, we discussed what our weaknesses were and from that point on, we focused on those points every day in practice.
RR: Luckily, when we returned to practice everyone showed up refreshed and ready to improve. It also really helped when Coach Sawtelle gathered us together which got us all on the same page. We had a conversation about what happened and how to prevent situations like that in the future. We were so determined to win every game from there on out.
Despite the three losses in Orlando, a closing win against Spruce Creek and a win at home against Okeechobee set the Falcons up for their postseason run beginning with the District 13-5A tournament where Jensen Beach did not get challenged sweeping Fort Pierce Westwood and Okeechobee to enter the 5A state playoffs as the top seed in Region 4-5A.
MS: The regional tournament was a different story. Our first match against Pembroke Pines, who defeated the No. 3 seed Archbishop McCarthy in their district tournament but we would go on to sweep them and then Okeechobee again to get the playoffs started. We had plenty of time to scout each team before playing them, so I made each girl come to practice with a scouting report on one person from their position and one random player. We would discuss their tendencies before practice then focus our offense and defense toward their weaknesses.
RR: When the playoffs came along, it was comforting to say that I don’t think we could have been any more prepared than we were. We scouted our butts off and didn’t take a single practice for granted. We continued to win our playoff matches by sticking to our game plan and playing Jensen Beach volleyball.
After the Falcons put away a pesky Suncoast club in the regional final, a date with Ocala Vanguard in the state semifinal was all that stood between a state title shot for Jensen Beach.
LW: We had a few days to prepare for that game and studied their team very well. We went into the game pretty confident after watching the film but also a little nervous because they looked pretty good. We played some of the best volleyball we have all season and pulled through with a really big win to take us to the state finals.
MS: After scouting them, the girls were very confident in our game plan and they executed it to perfection. They kept the offense away from their top hitter and we took advantage of the other players’ mistakes.
A talented Barron Collier team was the last opponent in the path for Jensen Beach with the 5A state title match to be played in Winter Haven at Polk State College. The core of the roster was determined to make amends for a state final loss to years ago to Ponte Vedra in Fort Myers but a large nuisance in the name of Hurricane Nicole coming toward the Treasure Coast in the leadup to the match made preparation for the team tricky.
LD: We could not practice in our own facility because our gym became a shelter and we were going to go to a local facility but they closed down. We lost a day of crucial practice leading up to states and half of the team couldn’t even get out of their neighborhoods. Thankfully, our school was nice enough to open up the morning of our travel day to let us practice for just an hour and then get on the road after that to travel to our biggest game of the year.
LW: Coach Sawtelle wasn't worried at all about the disruptions due to the storm. He said that we are prepared to win the championship, which we were.
LD: Waking up the morning of the game, there weren’t nerves just ready to get going to the gym. We all got ready, relaxed for a bit, and wanted to go watch the game that was playing before us. We were ready. I talked to a few of the girls on the team and none of us were nervous.
LW: We wanted redemption from our last time in the finals two years ago. From the start of the warmups, I could tell we wanted it. We were all so focused and had the look on our face that we weren’t losing. And as it turns out, we didn't. We had more energy with all our fans there, we had the better game, we had it all.
MS: Our team played to perfection, it was one of our best serving and hitting performances of the year. We kept Barron Collier running around and out of system. Our defense because of our player scouting reports knew exactly where their hitters were going, and we kept the ball in play so we could keep attacking them.
LD: It still doesn't feel like we won a state championship, it just felt like another game with no added pressure to do anything. We had the pace and lead of the game in our hands and that is what you need to do to become a state champion.
LW: As Coach Sawtelle said before the match, “The team that wins states, is not always the better team, but the team who comes ready to play.” And that team was us. It was the best way to close out my high school career. I couldn’t have asked for more.
RR: This season was truly remarkable and it was my favorite team that I have ever been a part of. Although I didn’t think this could be possible, this season, this program and group of girls made my love for volleyball grow even more.
MS: The girls on this team bought into the program and gained more focus and momentum as the season went on. Most of it was because of the senior leadership on this team and the memory of coming up short the previous season. It was a season to remember and one of the best seasons in Jensen Beach’s history.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Jensen Beach volleyball relives state championship season