By:  J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola

Celebration stepped on the gas early and never let up, defeating Tohopekaliga in straight sets to capture the 2023 Orange Belt Conference Boys’ Volleyball Championship on Thursday night.  The win gave Celebration their second consecutive OBC title and fourth in five years.

“We played well tonight and it’s a product of a veteran team that has played a lot of volleyball together for a lot of years,” Celebration coach Pedro Davila said.  “We just came out tonight and let our guys do what they do.”

For the Storm, Darion Graham had 16 kills, two blocks and two aces in leading Celebration to the 25-16, 25-17, 25-20 sweep.  Daniel Santiago had seven kills and Diego Rivera added two kills and three service aces as the Storm went to 10-8 on the season.

Eliel Salva had eight kills and two blocks at the net for Tohopekaliga; while Lucas Nieves had eight kills.  Jevon Andrew-Brown had four kills and a block.

“They game out fired up and played really well from the start in front of their home crowd,” Tohopekaliga coach Eric Capestany said.  “For some reason, we came out flat and simply could not match their intensity.  We would make a couple of runs to get close in some games, but simply could not maintain any rhythm.”

The match started off slowly for both teams had multiple ball-handling and hitting errors on both sides as they battled to an 11-11 tie.  Graham would then come on strong and spur an 11-2 run as Storm jumped out to a 23-13 lead and cruised to the first set win.  The senior leader would have five kills in that first set. 

Tohopekaliga fell behind 5-1 at the start of the second set.   They rallied to cut the gap to 7-6, but a 6-1 run pushed the Storm lead back to 13-7.  It set the tone for the rest of the match as Celebration would build leads but each time the Tigers would close to within one or two, the Storm would take advantage of some shady defense or strong play at the net to push the lead back to a comfortable level.

With the Storm up 17-13, Celebration would score seven of the next 11 points to close out the game and take a 2-0 lead.

Tohopekaliga would take a 3-0 lead to start the final set, but once again the Tigers would go cold as the Storm took advantage of several ball handling errors and some shaky Tiger defense to go on a 12-2 run to take a 12-5 lead.

Once again the Tigers would fight back to within 14-13, only to see the Storm push the lead back to 21-15.  From there, the closest Tohopekaliga would get would be within two points at 20-18 but the Storm would end the match on a 7-2 run to earn the sweep.

Celebration has six regular season matches left this season, including three against FHSAA top 20 ranked teams,  including contests against  #2 Southwest (14-2), #7 Miami (11-5) and #20 Tampa Bay HEAT (12-4).   The Storm has already played six top 25 teams this season.  “If you do not win your district you have no chance to gain an at-large bid unless you play a great schedule and that is what we always try to do,” Davila said.  “At the end of the day your regular season record does not matter. What matters is either winning your district or playing a tough enough schedule to keep your ranking up.”

Tohopekaliga falls to 13-7 on the season and also has a tough schedule in front of them, including games next week with state ranked #8 Freedom (14-2) and #16 Lake Nona (11-5).  In other tournament action, St. Cloud came from behind to defeat Poinciana in the third place match, 21-25, 25-17, 25-12, 25-20; Harmony defeated Gateway for fifth place.   Liberty finished in seventh.