Volleyball in Lake and Sumter counties is on the rise.

That’s the assessment of East Ridge coach Mayra Cuebas as she watched her team prepare for Tuesday’s match against Lake Minneola.

Cuebas has led the Knights to a 5-1 record this season, following East Ridge’s 3-0 win against the Hawks. And Cuebas’ boast about the level of play in the area this season has merit, based on the records of several programs.

In addition to East Ridge, Montverde Academy sports a 5-0 record, The Villages boasts a 6-0 mark, Tavares is 9-2, and First Academy of Leesburg is 6-1 heading into play today. East Ridge’s lone loss came in a five-set thriller against Montverde Academy, Tavares picked up a pair of losses during a weekend tournament at Orlando Lake Highland Prep, and First Academy lost to Ocala Trinity Catholic.

“When I came to East Ridge, one of my goals was to raise the level of play in Lake County,” Cuebas said. “For starters, the coaching is better than it used to be. There was a time when some schools had coaches who didn’t even know the rules of the game. They were just out there so the girls could play and as a result, the girls didn’t have the opportunity to improve.

“Now, with better coaching, they can reach their potential.”

Another factor in the improved level of play is that facilities have improved to a point where instructional camps and tournaments are being held in Lake County now. Cuebas said when The Big House — a state of the art community center and sports facility designed to provide quality, competitive athletic opportunities for all athletes — opened several years ago in Tavares, it helped to raise the level of play.

Because of facilities like The Big House, Cuebas said it is now easier to get established programs — including club teams — to venture into Lake County, giving local players a chance to compete against stiffer competition.

“You get better by playing better teams,” Cuebas said.

Tavares coach April Smith said her program is improved because of its on-court leadership and experience. The Bulldogs have three seniors — Marjorie Netwal, Jasmine Kimpel and Heather Painter — who have become key contributors and are leaders through example, motivation and determination.

Along with her trio of senior leaders, Smith has gotten solid contributions for the younger players on the roster. Junior Mary Linkous, for example, is among the team’s statistical leaders with 66 kills this season.

When all the pieces are put together, Smith said the atmosphere is conducive for on-court success.

“All three of my senior leaders bring different aspects to the team,” Smith said. “But, the one thing — the most important thing — they have is the will to win. They have all been a part of our team in the past when we didn’t win very much and they want something different for their senior year. That attitude has rubbed off on everyone in the program and it has helped to raise our level of play.

“These girls believe they’re capable of winning every time they step on the court.”

Like Smith, Cuebas said the Knights have also set their goals high this season. Not only is East Ridge looking to succeed at the district and regional levels, but the Knights also have dreams of reaching the state tournament.

The Knights have players who have experience at the varsity, club and international levels. Stephanie Samedy, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter who many consider one of the top players in the country, helps fuel the Knights’ success with a multi-faceted skill set.

“Stephanie had the awesome opportunity to compete as a member of the U.S. Junior National team the past two summers and recently was ranked No. 5 in the nation,” Cuebas said. “She uses that experience along with her natural talent and unsurpassed level of commitment and hard work to our team. She’s helped us get off to a very positive note this season.

“I think we have a chance to become one of the most successful volleyball teams in East Ridge history.”

Samedy agrees with her coach.

In her first five matches, Samedy has produced 91 kills — a kill percentage of 40.8 percent — and 57 digs. She also has 10 service aces.

“We definitely have the talent to go all the way,” Samedy said. “We’re playing a tough schedule, which has helped to bring us together as a group. We just have to stay focused and do the little things.

“I feel good about our chances.”