The Hillsborough County champs: (Front row, l.-r.:) Sharuya Kataria, Devin Etienne, Druve Kulkarni, Nikhil Katiyar, Kamal Abutaha; (middle row, l.-r.:) Layth Yassin, Gregory Morris, Arman Razavi, Nithin Sivamoorthy; (back row, l.-r.:) Tristan Wilhoyt, Owen Brown, Grayson Gonzalez, Dillon Hand, Sully Al Qadheeb, Rithik Borra, Karl Rix. 
Coaches (bottom right, left to right:) Austin Hand, Karen Burchfield & Chris Ellis.

The Benito Middle School boys volleyball team had been 9-0 before. It had been dominant in previous years. It had won its cluster, or league, multiple times.

However, the Cougars had never won a Hillsborough County championship.

This year, however, was different. 

This year, they just happened to have a Hand up on the opposition.

Rolling behind the best player the school has ever had, 8th grader Dillon Hand, the Cougars dropped only one set all season and captured the school’s first-ever boys volleyball county championship.

Benito defeated Roland Park 25-9, 25-12 last month to take home the school’s first-ever County title.

“We went into the season thinking we had a really good shot,” says coach Chris Ellis. “They practiced like all-stars, but sometimes got into games and were tight. We were winning by five points against teams we should have been blowing out.”

If there were any doubts about the Cougars rising to the challenge, they answered it in the first game of the playoffs against defending County Champion Tomlin Middle School, which many saw as the real county championship game.

After splitting the first two sets, the match went to a decisive 15-point third set. Tomlin raced to a 6-0 lead, and then the lead was 11-5. Time was running out.

“I called a timeout and just tried to relax everyone,” Ellis said. “I told them that this was going to be the greatest story in 40 minutes, that they would be in their cars on the way home just going crazy that they came back and won the county championship. So, just relax and let’s take this thing over.”

The Cougars responded with nearly flawless play, scoring 10 of the final 12 points for a 15-13 win, and coasted to wins in the semifinals and final the next two days.

“We were getting pounded, and then they started making mistakes and we didn’t,” said assistant coach Karen Burchfield. “We just got on a roll.”

Burchfield also coaches the Benito girls volleyball team (with Ellis assisting), which was 9-1 this season. She won a county title in 2013, with star Kathryn Attar, who also was a standout at Wharton and is currently an All-Ivy League Conference performer at Yale University.

The 6’-2” Hand has drawn comparisons to Attar, for his dominance and leadership in a championship season. Ellis says Hand is arguably the best eighth-grader in the state, able to control the action at the net as well as possessing a major league jump serve.

Hand’s brother Austin was on the first-ever boys volleyball team at Benito in 2017 and helped as an assistant coach on the team this year.

Ellis says the team’s one play this season was setting Hand for the kill, but the rest of the Cougars definitely helped make that possible. 

Owen Brown (far left) delivers a header for a point on what Ellis calls Benito’s Play of the Year.

Setter Arman Razavi, also an eighth-grader, was the only Cougar with prior experience other than Hand. His ability to get the ball to Hand was the team’s primary source of offense, but he also served out the last four points of the Tomlin match when there was no room for error.

Libero Kamal Abutaha was a rarity — a sixth-grader who started at one of the sport’s toughest positions. He managed, however, to dig enough balls to Razavi to keep the offense humming, even in the county semifinals, when he had to wear his sister’s Vans because he forgot his shoes.

Sully Al-Qadheeb was the emotional leader on the team, who received a tryout — after the team had already been selected — at the recommendation of track/football coach Rodney Sharpe.

“Coach, I know you already announced the team, but this kid can jump out of the gym,” he told Ellis. “You should give him a look.”

Ellis says five minutes into his tryout, and despite zero volleyball experience, Sully was a starter. He made a number of big plays during the season, including a tip in the third set against Tomlin that tied the score at 12 and swung the momentum in Benito’s favor for good.

Eighth-grader and co-captain Nikhil Katiyar put off soccer to commit to the volleyball team, and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Owen Brown — also an eighth-grade co-captain — was consistent at the net but will probably be remembered most for heading the ball during the second set of the championship game, which scored a point and fired up the team so much they had to make a TikTok video of the feat.

Another eighth-grader, Boden Houck, earned his way into the rotation because of his serve, and he led the team off with his serve in every match, and Druve Kulkarni also chipped in with some big serves during the playoffs.

“Dillon was very good, obviously,” Ellis said. “He was ridiculous this season. But, this was a great team. Everyone had a role, and they played it perfectly.”

Recommended Posts

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment