For South Florida Times
Some say it is no coincidence that Michael M. Krop Senior High School class 6-A student athletes Stephanie Harris and Alisha Shepherd met years ago and became good friends.
What the teammates on the highly touted Krop women’s volleyball team have in common is striking.
Both were born on the same day. Oct. 5, in the same hospital, North Shore Medical Center in Miami, with the same middle name, Michelle. They play the same position, middle hitter, are African American and have the same goal: to win a championship. In fact, they are the only African American players on the team of which Stephanie is a co-captain. Assistant Coach Annika Barnwell, who recently joined the team, is also black.
Having won more than 70 percent of their games together over the past two years, the only major goal left for the two blue chip level prospects is a state championship, which Krop has never won.
The Lightning had a 15 game win streak that ended on Oct. 14 with a loss to Westminster Christian School. Still their win-loss record is currently 22-2.
Though each student-athlete had their own small growing pains early on, they have come to love and excel in the sport, while cementing a long-lasting friendship along the way.
“We have grown so close over the years,” said Alisha. “We are best friends on and off the court.” Coach Jackie Torano said they are inseparable, even in practice.
“They are always together and, because they play the same position, they block and pepper with each other. A lot of times what we [the coaches] say to one we say to the other also.”
“It was love at first hit for her,” Renee Harris, associate editor at South Florida Times, said of her 6’ 0 daughter Stephanie. “She just has a natural talent for it.”
Stephanie, the middle sibling of three, said it is something she was meant to do with an aggressive passion. “My favorite thing is the joy of hitting people in the face,” she said, grinningly.
She patterns her game after the play of University of Texas All-American player Destinee Hooker.
“She is amazing and is a beast. She hits like she is 7’2 and weighs about 400 pounds,” said the senior.
“It is a team sport and I like that part of it and working with others,” said Alisha, a 6’1 junior, the elder of two siblings. “I really liked it early and it was something I wanted to do in the future, so I have stuck with it because I knew I would be good at it some day.”
Torano, in her first year coaching the two girls, said she had been aware of their talent and potential for some time as she functioned as Krops’ coach intermittently over the years.
“They have been crucial to our success this year,” Torano said. “Without them there would be a hole in our line-up and we would have to work a lot harder. They have both put their hearts out there on the floor this year.”
Torano said with both having aspirations to play at the next level, factors such as academics, a positive work ethic and national club play and exposure are important to a successful transition for each of them.
“Based on their talent alone, they both have what it takes to play on the division one level,” she added.
The girls said their strengths are in their spiking or kills, along with their attacking and jumping. They admit, however, that they need to improve their blocking, serving and back row play.
As the post season approaches, a deep run for the team will help solidify college aspirations. Stephanie has a short list of colleges to choose from, including the University of Southern California, the University of South Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University. Alisha will be one of seven players returning for the Lightning for the 2011 season but she has already narrowed her college choices to Florida International University and Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“They have grown so much together over the last several years,” said Shepherd’s mother and admitted number-one fan Cynthia Arnold. “Their transformation into womanhood together has been great.”
Added Stephanie’s mother, “It has been my honor to support her and expose her to whatever she needs to be exposed to in order to excel.”
Torano said regional play continues to be the stumbling block each year for the team for close to a decade now. The Lightning came up short facing a talented Palmetto squad in a best two out of three series in the much anticipated Greater Miami Athletic Conference tournament recently.
“There were a couple of momentum changes throughout and we just could not come back,” Torano said. “It came down to us making a few more mistakes then they did.”
Still, Torano remains optimistic over her team’s chances this year, learning from last year’s defeat by Ferguson High School.
The Lightning defeated Hialeah Tuesday night in regional play and will face Coral Park next week.
Stephanie and Alisha will be leading the way on what Torano said is a very talented but untested squad throughout the season.
JAMES FORBES/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
STAR PLAYERS: Alisha Shepherd and Stephanie Harris