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EAST LAKE — Much like last year, East Lake headed into Tuesday’s Class 5A region semifinal against rival Clearwater with a four-match win streak in the regular season.
Unlike last year, the Eagles won the fifth — and most important — match 25-18, 25-19, 20-25, 25-16. The win avenges a three-game loss to the Tornadoes in last season’s region semifinals.
“That was on our mind, the way last year ended,” East Lake coach Terry Small said. “We wanted to make sure we did not repeat.”
In the first two games, the Eagles (26-2) started slow, a trend that has continued throughout their series with Clearwater this season.
But the Eagles bore down to turn those close games into victories.
In the third, the Tornadoes’ Jen Opper and Nikki O’Rourke each had big kills down the stretch to pull out the win. It was the first time Clearwater (20-9) had taken a game from East Lake since their first meeting this season.
The momentum carried over to the fourth game, as the Tornadoes opened a 9-3 lead. Then things turned. Opper was on the bench after rotating to the back row and the Eagles took advantage with Lauran Eschenroeder and Brittnay Estes dominating at the net.
East Lake scored the next 12 points to go up 15-9.
“Once we were down, we knew we had to go,” said Estes, who finished with 15 kills and 23 digs. “We had to put our foot on the pedal and push.”
Clearwater never recovered from that long scoreless stretch and could only cut the deficit to five the rest of the way.
“We had some hitting errors in that fourth game,” Tornadoes coach Kara Betourne said. “We got down on ourselves and couldn’t pull out of it. But we made some progress and turned it around and won a game this time.”
Jackie Wegner had 13 kills and Eschenroeder had five kills and five blocks to lead the Eagles.