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TARPON SPRINGS — Just a few moments before the start of his team’s first playoff game, East Lake coach Terry Small had a message for sophomore reserves Jess Steidl, Kristen Berlo and Mary Gillis, and junior backup setter Lindsey Havican:
“We just kind of looked at each other and we’re like, oh, okay. Cool,” said Berlo, a middle hitter.
The start was a reward for the hard work all season, and the reserves rewarded Small for his confidence, winning the first game and setting the tone in a 25-21, 25-7, 25-8 victory over Pinellas Park Wednesday night in a Class 5A region quarterfinal.
Berlo had two kills in the key run of the first game, breaking an 8-all tie. Pinellas Park (12-10) pulled within a point late in the game at 19-18, but the Eagles scored four straight points and pulled away.
“It was fun,” Berlo said. “We definitely could have played a little better, but at the end we were thinking, ‘Hey, this is kind of close so let’s pick it up.’ ”
Small said players like Berlo would start for most teams, and he had no problem giving them the start. After the national anthem, he let them know of their surprise assignment.
“They had no idea I was doing it,” he said. “We were taking this match seriously. That shows how much confidence I have in them.”
Berlo finished with five kills and Havican had 14 assists.
Once East Lake (24-2) went back to its usual starting lineup, the Patriots were overwhelmed. Despite boasting 6-foot-2 Andrea Ezell and 6-1 Mallory Leary, they had no answer for East Lake’s serving and slicker attack. The Eagles scored the final 10 points to move on to a region semifinal meeting with Clearwater on Tuesday.
Last year, the Tornadoes stunned the Eagles in the semifinal after losing to them four times during the season. East Lake is 4-0 again against Clearwater this season.