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At 0-3, it would have taken a quantum-sized leap of faith for the Hernando volleyball team to believe it would be playing tonight in the school’s first region semifinal since 2004.
After head-scratching losses late in the season to Central and Lecanto, the up-and-down Leopards seemed, well, too up-and-down to make a serious postseason run.
Somewhere along the line, though, Hernando dug within itself.
And the Leopards decided to keep digging.
Without a money-in-the-bank attacker like they’ll face tonight in Nature Coast’s Courtney Liddle, Hernando turned to its defense to earn a spot in tonight’s region semifinal at 24-4 Nature Coast (7 p.m. start).
When the opponent has possession, the Leopards fan out like cagey felines, ready to pounce on any ball.
They cover every inch of the court, their fast-twitch reflexes tipping each ball into the air, keeping it in play.
Early in the district final against Nature Coast, Sharks coach Emily Gore said her team couldn’t find anywhere to hit against the Leopards defense. The Sharks tried punishing kills. They tried soft, feathery drop shots. They aimed for the corners and the sidelines.
But everywhere they hit, it seemed, the ball was gobbled up and spit back at them by a gritty Hernando defense.
“You can’t seem to find a hole in Hernando’s defense right now,” Gore said after the Sharks’ district final victory.
The key tonight for Hernando will be whether it can sustain that level of play. Twelve days ago in that final against Nature Coast, the Leopards had chances to win the opening game, were within striking distance in Game 2 and fought off a match point to stay alive and take Game 3.
The spunk that kept them close initially disappeared in a final-game runaway win for the Sharks.
Hernando can’t let up and expect to win tonight.
The Leopards have proved they can play well in stretches. Behind the attacking of Brittany Hill and Malea Kalina, capable setting from Kristen Jones, a well-rounded service game and that trademark defense, Hernando won four straight matches to advance to the final of the Fivay Invitational before falling to Wiregrass Ranch.
The Leopards upset top-seeded Land O’Lakes in the district semifinals to reach this point.
And they even knocked off Nature Coast in a best-of-three game victory at the Lady Noles Invitational for their only win in four tries against the Sharks.
In order to win again against Nature Coast, Hernando will have to get defensive.