Northeast Florida Sports Jacksonville

Bartram Trail spiking the competition one-by-one

JULINGTON CREEK – Having a first year coach isn’t always easy, it takes time to adjust to the coaching change and the change of philosophies.

Despite being one of the most successful programs, for the third time in four years, the Bartram Trail volleyball underwent another coaching change.

Enter new coach Lainey Kekic, who led the Union County Tigers program to the Class 1A Final Four last season and a 39-14 record over the last years, including back-to-back district titles.

Taking over a program that has made the playoffs 12 of the 17 years it has existed, including a run to the Sweet 16 last season, isn’t easy as it comes with a lot of expectations. The Bears were 18-8 last season losing to arch-rival Creekside in the Sweet 16 and 3 of their 4 meetings last season.

Bartram Trail won the prestigious Bolles Invitational recently for the first time in the programs history.

Kekic has made it look easy so far, off to a 16-4 start heading into the final week of the regular season.
Of course not every coach is blessed with the talent Kekic was given with the return of 6-foot-6 junior middle blocker Alexia Kuehl (a Colorado commit) and senior middle blocker and captain Caroline Coley, who returned after a foot injury earlier in the year.

The two along with senior libero and captain Lexie Ahren, junior setter Alex Murphy and senior outside hitter and captain Kendall Sheffer returned from last seasons deep playoff run.

Add in newcomers junior outside hitter Taylor Smith, junior outside hitter Madison Sheffield, junior setter Katie Demo, sophomore outside hitter Samantha Sicoli and sophomore defensive specialists Gaby Taveras, senior outside hitter Mackenzie McDonald, freshmen defensive specialists Margeau Player, freshmen outside hitter Sarah Williamson and junior defensive specialists Kayla Ahren and you not only have a very talented team but you have a recipe of a team that can compete for a state title.

It didn’t long for Kekic to earn her first win as a Bear with a 3-1 win over Providence Aug 22 at home, from their the Bears reeled off wins over St. Augustine and nemesis Creekside before stumbling to Fletcher for their first loss.

Heading into late September, the Bears were 8-2 and full of confidence after knocking off district rival Buchholz on the road before competing in the prestigious Bolles tournament.

The annual tournament features some of the best teams in the area with Fletcher, Bolles, Oak Hall, Gainesville, Middleburg, Santa Fe and Nease.

Another tournament another trophy for the Lady Bears volleyball program after winning the inaugural St. Johns River Athletic Conference tournament.

After dropping the opener to Gainesville, the Bears rallied to finish second in Pool B with wins over Santa Fe and Middleburg to advance to the semifinals.

Bartram Trail avenged an earlier loss to Fletcher with a 23-25, 25-20, 15-10 win over the Senators to advance to the finals.

The Bears got their wish to avenge the loss to Gainesville easily winning the championship match 25-20, 25-22 to win their first ever Bolles Invitational Tournament.

Coming off winning the Bolles Invitational, the Bears were swept by Buchholz at home but rebounded to knock off Oakleaf to finish District 4-8A play.

On Saturday, the Bears competed in the inaugural St. Johns River Athletic Conference tournament with Fleming Island, St. Augustine, Pedro Menendez, Nease, Orange Park, Middleburg, Palatka and  Matanzas.

The Bears swept their way through the title with wins over Orange Park, Middleburg and district rival Fleming Island in the championship match.

Buchholz and Bartram Trail are the top two seeds going into the District 4-8A tournament. The Bears and the Bobcats have split both matches so far this season and know the other stands in the other way of winning the district.

Oakleaf will host the District 4-8A tournament Oct. 17-19 featuring top seed Buchholz (18-2, 8-1), second seed Bartram Trail (16-4, 7-2), Fleming Island (14-8, 4-4), Oakleaf (10-9, 2-7) and Creekside (4-16, 1-7). The top two teams will advance to the state playoffs.

Bartram Trail split with Buchholz during the regular season so everyone is awaiting for the highly anticipated third meeting in the district title match.

First things first though as No. 2 ranked Bartram Trail enters the final week of the regular season with games at county rival No. 1 ranked Ponte Vedra on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. before hosting Episcopal Thursday at 6:30 p.m. for Senior night.

We caught up with Bartram Trail on Thursday as the team appeared on the ‘Press Box’ show. Kekic and several of the players joined us to talk about the season, the goal of getting to the state finals and the No. 1 vs No. 2 showdown with Ponte Vedra.