BROOKSVILLE — It’s been a recurring theme for the Nature Coast volleyball team.
Start a match sluggishly. Fall behind considerably. Rally furiously. Then rip the spirit out of the opponent.
Hernando knew this process all too well. 12 days earlier in the district final, the Leopards led by as many as nine points in the opening game only to watch the Sharks storm back and steal Game 1. That day, Nature Coast never looked back.
In Tuesday’s Class 4A region semifinal between the same teams, the Leopards fell victim once again.
Behind Courtney Liddle’s perplexing topspin serve, Nature Coast overcame a 20-12 deficit in the opening game to rattle Hernando.
Then, sensing their opponent’s shaken confidence, the Sharks overpowered the Leopards the rest of the way in a 26-24, 25-13, 25-18 victory.
The win puts Nature Coast in the region final for the first time.
“It’s amazing. After the match, I started crying tears of joy, and I’ve never done that in my life before,” Liddle said. “I’ve never cried because I was that happy before.”
Liddle was the catalyst of Nature Coast’s opening-game turnaround.
With Hernando (16-13) three points from taking a 1-0 lead at 22-17, Liddle found her groove. She served two straight aces and won six points in a row on her serve to put the Sharks ahead 23-22. Behind 24-23, Nature Coast (25-4) staved off a game point and won the next three points to cap an exhilarating rally.
“I think that’s just our team’s personality,” Nature Coast coach Emily Gore said. “They don’t panic when they fall behind. They have a lot of confidence in themselves, and they have a lot of confidence in each other.”
Liddle won nine straight points on her serve in Game 2 to open an insurmountable 19-4 lead. Hernando kept it closer in the final game but couldn’t overcome a Nature Coast side determined to win in three games.
“Every timeout, we talked about not letting up,” Gore said. “We know Hernando just doesn’t go away. They always find a way to get back in it. We talked about making a statement tonight, and that’s what we did. We wanted to come out and win in three and earn some respect.”
Liddle had an all-star night for the Sharks. She served seven aces, had 22 kills and added 11 digs. Setter Lauren Powell had 27 assists, and Alexa Coscia led the Sharks with 13 digs.
“Our goal, something we haven’t done all season against them, was to beat them in three,” Liddle said. “Two things we do: we protect our house and we protect our family. They said they were going to take our house from us, and that wasn’t going to happen.”