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LAKELAND — They hugged him, one by one, two by two, three by three until — poof! — East Lake High volleyball coach Terry Small disappeared.
Somewhere, out of sight and buried beneath the best Class 5A volleyball team in the state may have been the finest moment of Small’s now concluded career at East Lake.
A tumultuous season filled with drama ended without any Saturday afternoon, as the Eagles completed a fierce, dominant drive to the school’s first volleyball championship, putting aside defending champion Stuart Martin County 27-25, 25-16, 25-17 at the Lakeland Center.
The Eagles (29-2) are the first Pinellas County school to win a state title since 2000’s Clearwater team. Their victory, combined with titles won by Plant and Berkeley Prep, mark the sixth time since 1990 the Tampa Bay area has won three state volleyball titles in one season.
Small, who resigned earlier this season (effective Saturday) in the face of a Florida High School Athletic Association investigation, said his future is unclear, but plans to enjoy the present. The FHSAA won’t provide details about the investigation while it is ongoing, though Small has been accused of recruiting in the past.
“It hasn’t hit me, I don’t think it’s hit any of us we’ve all been so focused on doing one day, one game,” he said. “I don’t want to accept it and I am not going to yet. I’m going to enjoy today, enjoy the moment and I don’t want to spoil that. It’s special.”
It was a typical East Lake performance, with a revolving cast of heroes pitching in .
Leading 23-21 in the opening game, Martin County let its best chance for control slip away when star Nicole Walch hit wide and the next series Eagle senior Lauran Eschenroeder came up with a huge block to tie.
The Eagles then staved off one game point before Brianna McComeskey and Eschenroeder delivered consecutive kills for a 27-25 win and 1-0 lead.
It took almost a whole game for the Eagles to figure out Walch, a tremendous hitter bound for Nebraska. She had 10 kills in the first game; she’d only get nine in the next two.
“Timing, all timing,” said Brittnay Estes, who had seven digs and three blocks.
Walch had 55 attacks in three games, and Molly O’Neill had 25. The rest of the Tigers combined had just 25, so East Lake knew where to focus.
“To do that with one person is a lot easier than what the opponents had to do with us,” said Small, who had five players with at least 12 attacks. “You figure out how to stop one (of us), and then someone else is lighting it up.”
No one, however, lit it up quite like sophomore libero Brooke Burkett.
In the second game with her team leading 9-8, Burkett served nine straight points, including five aces.
“It was insane,” Eschenroeder said.
The Martin County players said afterward they had seen better serves, but there was no question they had been befuddled. Burkett found a weak link and kept hitting to it even after the Tigers tried to adjust. A day after rallying from two games down to win its semifinal, Martin County players admitted they knew it wasn’t possible against East Lake.
“We gave up,” said first-year coach Krissy Schmidt, an assessment echoed by Walch and O’Brien.
McComeskey, Eschenroeder and Reed all kept the pressure on as the Eagles closed out Game 2, then slammed the door as Estes, McComeskey, Eschenroeder, Wegner and Reed each had kills or blocks in a 13-5 run to open Game 3.
When Martin County made one final run and pulled within 16-12, Small put in sophomore Kristen Berlo, who responded immediately with consecutive kills to make it 18-12, and the clock started to quickly run out on Small’s career and East Lake’s volleyball title drought.
After hugging Small, the Eagles rushed over to their gym bags, pulled out their “I Love Terry Small” T-shirts and wore them for the medal ceremony.
East Lake joins a small club of Pinellas County state volleyball champions.
Year School Classification
1981 Clearwater Central Catholic 2A
1985 Clearwater Central Catholic 2A
1991 Tarpon Springs 3A
1997 Clearwater 5A
2000 Clearwater 4A
2010 East Lake 5A