CLEARWATER — For the past two seasons, Palm Harbor University has come up short against nemesis East Lake every time. This season included two heartbreaking, five-game losses.
So before Wednesday night’s PCAC final against East Lake, the Hurricanes came up with a different strategy: Don’t think about anything.
“We just told ourselves to separate the emotions from the game,” senior outside hitter Lee Nielsen said. “We sometimes get too mental. We just had to block all that out and play as a team.”
PHU certainly looked loose in its 25-19, 25-17, 23-25, 25-16 win at Countryside to earn the PCAC championship. The Hurricanes (12-12) snapped a seven-match losing streak in its semifinal win over Clearwater. East Lake (20-2) defeated Countryside in the semifinal, then suffered its first loss since Aug. 30 against Clearwater.
The Hurricanes showed how dangerous they can be when healthy. Nielsen was out for a week with an ankle injury, along with junior middle hitter Naomi Mack. Both returned Wednesday and played a big role in the final, as did senior middle hitter Logan Miller.
Nielsen had 16 kills, 29 digs and seven aces. Miller was big at the net with 21 kills.
PHU set the tone in the first game after getting off to a slow start. The Hurricanes fell behind but came back to tie the score at 8. From there, backed by the net play of Nielsen and Miller and the defensive play of Ameje Ismaili and Randi Dawson, PHU took a 17-12 lead. It scored the last three points and carried that momentum into game two.
Up 13-11, the Hurricanes scored the next eight points to jump out to a 21-11 lead before closing it out.
East Lake held a lead for much of game three, but PHU came back to tie it at 20. Kills from Brooke Burkett and Mary Gillis enabled East Lake to close out the game and force a fourth.
East Lake hung in for much of the game, but with the score tied at 16 PHU took off. The Hurricanes scored the final nine points thanks to good net play and East Lake errors.
“I think our team showed an awful lot of character,” PHU coach Tara Kuk said. “Playing East Lake is always going to be a tough match. They are state champions so we expected another tough match.”
East Lake was without two starters. Senior outside hitter Shelby Younger injured her ankle Monday and junior outside hitter Kelsey Smith injured her ankle during practice. Coach Mike Estes said he hopes to have them back for Thursday’s district final.
Estes said it would have been hard to beat PHU even with all his players.
“No excuses, they played well,” Estes said. “They wanted it more than we did, I thought that was pretty clear. They pretty much outplayed us in every aspect. It happens. I’m not so much worried about a PCAC trophy as I am with the districts next week.”
These teams will likely meet again next week in the district championship. Wednesday night was a big confidence booster for the Hurricanes.
“I haven’t beaten them since my sophomore year,” Nielsen said. “Obviously, this is a big win for us.”