CLEARWATER — It came into the season as the team to beat, then was promptly beaten.
But Wednesday night, East Lake came full circle heading into next week’s playoffs.
Against the team that stopped them cold in the season opener, the Eagles proved there is little doubt anymore that they are the county’s best team, swamping defending champion Palm Harbor University 25-15, 25-18, 25-20 to win the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship.
“I told my coaches before we played (Clearwater in the semifinals) that they had something in their eyes tonight,” said coach Terry Small. “I mean, that desire, that fire, you can’t force them to have that. Tonight, they had it.”
The fire was lit early by outside hitter Brittany Estes, who delivered a host of booming kills in the first game then unleashed an unstoppable jump serve in the second, accounting for nine straight points at one juncture.
“Every time we play Palm Harbor I get a little more pumped up,” said Estes. “It makes you want to pound the ball.”
And pound the ball they did. Lauran Eschenroeder had 13 kills, Brianna McComeskey nine and Estes seven.
Even setter Rachel Reed had a couple. With her team leading 19-18 in the final game, she punctuated an exciting rally by going cross court for a kill then won a joust at the net with two Hurricanes to make it 21-18.
Reed then did what she does best: served up assists (32 total) to Eschenroeder to set up game point, which was hammered home by McComeskey.
“I think we played great as a team tonight,” Estes said. “Everything was clicking. But as a team, I think we can still be 10 times better.”
PHU (16-7) led the first two games 5-1 and 6-1, but couldn’t maintain any momentum. Defensively, Jackie Wegner and Estes had 16 digs and libero Brooke Burkett had 14 as the Eagles mostly foiled the Hurricanes’ offense.
In the second game after PHU rode some excellent net play by Leah McNary to a 6-1 lead, East Lake went on a 15-3 run and was so dominant that all three of PHU’s points came on Eagles service errors.
It was only the second PCAC title for East Lake, the first coming in 2001.
The Eagles beat Clearwater for the third straight time Wednesday in the semifinals, 25-19, 25-22, 25-13, while PHU made the final by defeating Lakewood 25-20, 25-11, 25-10.
In the third-place game, Clearwater beat Lakewood 25-8, 25-19, 23-25, 25-19.