CLEARWATER — With Clearwater three points from winning the first game, Steinbrenner coach Laura Stegenga called her second timeout and ordered the team over to the bench.
She didn’t fuss at her players. She didn’t scrap their old strategy for a new one. Instead, she simply gave them a little extra — and familiar — motivation.
“I told them I would buy them doughnuts,” Stegenga said. “They needed to calm down.”
Whether it was the promise of a trip to Dunkin’ Donuts or the region final or some combination of both, the first-year head coach’s gambit worked better than expected.
The Warriors rallied for a 27-25 win in the first set and controlled the next two games, 25-11 and 25-14, from start to finish in a dominating three-game sweep of Clearwater in their Class 7A region semifinal Tuesday.
Madison Seuzeneau led Steinbrenner (19-8) with 17 kills, Rachel Mathison had 10, and the Warriors advanced to the region final after falling short in the same round of the playoffs for three consecutive years.
“I’ve watched us get to this point and drop off and not go any further,” said Seuzeneau, a senior outside hitter who was a freshman member of Steinbrenner’s first volleyball team in 2009. “So it’s absolutely incredible to finally get into the next round.”
And the Warriors did it against Clearwater (21-8), the 7A-9 district champ and the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in a five-set thriller at Steinbrenner last year.
Call it sweet revenge.
“Our coach bribes us with food,” said Mathison, a junior outside hitter. “But she knew we were a little frazzled.”
Clearwater took an early lead in the first set, exploiting confusion among the Warriors’ front line, capitalizing on their mistakes and even mixing in three aces.
But Stegenga’s second timeout, with the Tornadoes leading 22-18, seemed to blunt their momentum and Steinbrenner scored six of the next seven points to take a 24-23 lead.
The Warriors closed out the set with consecutive kills from Mathison and Seuzeneau, who also scored the final point in a 25-11 Game 2 win.
Clearwater coach Kara Betourne said her team never recovered after Steinbrenner made its run late in the first set.
“Steinbrenner really kind of got in our head,” Betourne said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened tonight. If we played again on a different day, it might have been a different outcome.”
5A: Robinson rights ship
DUNEDIN — The ebb and flow of Tuesday’s Class 5A region semifinal between Robinson and Dunedin seemingly changed with every few points.
At first, the Knights had the momentum, winning the first two games.
Then they didn’t.
The Falcons seized control with a furious rally, winning the next two and building a 10-5 lead in the deciding game. That seemed to spell doom for Robinson and its magical season.
But the Knights scored two quick points. Then they scored again, and again. In the end, Robinson scored 10 of the final 12 points to pull off a dramatic 25-17, 25-21, 23-25, 17-25, 15-10 victory.
“As much as we were down in that last game, I still felt we could come back,” Knights coach Christen Garcia said. “Our whole season has been up and down. But we’ve been gaining experience in matches like these and know we’re finding ways to close them out.”
Early on, it seemed Robinson (18-9) was going to cruise to an easy victory after taking the first two games. But the Falcons (12-8) have made a habit of starting slow before roaring back.
Dunedin followed the script, making a furious rally behind Hannah Welsh and Katie Will, who dominated at the net in the third and fourth games.
“We’ve been down this road before,” Dunedin coach Kassy Will said. “We were down two games and came back to win three just to make the playoffs.”
It appeared the Falcons would pull off another remarkable comeback. Led by Welsh, the Falcons were up 5-1 and 10-5.
That’s when Garcia called timeout.
After that, the Knights had things work in their favor. Welsh and Will were pinned in the back row and unable to connect on kills or blocks near the net. Robinson’s hitters got into a rhythm as Alli Weathers, Lexi Gaertner and Crystal Ortiz each connected on kills. The Knights scored six of the next seven points to tie the game at 11. Robinson closed out the match by scoring four of the final five.
Gaertner had 12 kills and six blocks and Weathers added 10 kills and 12 digs to lead the Knights.
Welsh had a team-high 15 kills and five blocks for Dunedin.
“We just got into a slump and a bad rotation,” Kassy Will said. “I thought we had it wrapped up. But it was still a great season.”
4A: Brown takes charge for Bucs
TAMPA — Berkeley Prep barely squeezed by Tampa Catholic in the first two games Tuesday, but Sidney Brown made sure it didn’t happen a third time.
The 5-foot-11 junior went on a match-cinching tear, winning five points in a row on kills — most of the booming variety — as Berkeley Prep earned a 27-25, 25-23, 25-14 victory in the 4A region semifinals.
“When she’s on like that, you just keep feeding her. There’s no reason not to,” said Buccaneers setter Maddie Alberdi, who had 34 assists. Eight of Brown’s 18 kills came in the final game.
Brown also took command during an important sequence in the second game. Tampa Catholic’s Sydney Blank hit four aces in five serves to tie the score at 19. A kill by Berkeley Prep’s Addison Harden broke the tie then Brown scored three of the next five points for a 23-21 lead.
Blank finished with eight aces for the Crusaders. She had three in a row early as Tampa Catholic built a 16-11 lead in game one. Harden led Berkeley back with two booming shots and a block, the latter giving the Bucs a 21-18 advantage. But Natalie Nammour’s ace, the Crusaders’ 10th of the game, put Tampa Catholic up 25-24.
Berkeley Prep (17-11) then won a battle at the net on the next point and the Crusaders followed with two errors.
“Tonight we showed we had fight and heart,” Bucs coach John Coup said. “We didn’t shrink in those tight situations. Now we have to go back to the drawing board and work on technique.”
His side was sloppy at times but dominated as far as attacking was concerned.
Tampa Catholic’s leading attackers were Abby Zimroth and Tyler Sroufe with six each. Blank and Lizzy Zimroth each had 11 digs as the Crusaders (16-9) often times wowed the Straz Athletic Center crowd on defense.
“We definitely had a letdown after losing the first game, that’s how it’s been all year,” Tampa Catholic coach John Babbitt said. “But we’re in a good place for next season. None of our starters are seniors.”
3A: Terps make 'statement'
TAMPA — On a night of tense political nip and tuck, Tampa Prep enjoyed a landslide.
Asserting itself at the net, the Terrapins rolled to a 3-0 victory against Seffner Christian in the Class 3A region semifinals on Carol Chalu Court. Tampa Prep (14-14) visits reigning state champ Orlando First Academy on Saturday.
“We wanted to make a statement,” Terrapins first-year coach Andrew Wilson said. “We wanted to make sure that we were in the right mind-set going forward.
“We had played this team twice before (winning in four games both times) and I hate playing a team three, four or five times in a season. It’s hard to stay up for them, and we have a problem with playing to the level of our competition all the time.”
After the Terps won the first two games 25-10 and 25-20, the Crusaders (13-12) made it interesting in Game 3, tying the score at 20-all before committing a service error, then watching Terps sophomore Ariana Mosley record two of her three aces. Another SCA unforced error made it 24-20 before Tampa Prep ultimately closed out the match with a 25-22 win.
Five-foot-10 sophomore Corey Perkins and 6-2 senior Katie Krueger teamed for 25 kills to lead Tampa Prep, which fell to First Academy in three tight games in last season’s region finals.
Kamryn Beach and Rachel Carr each tallied two blocks for the winners. Ally Parimore had 11 kills for SCA.
6A: Gryphons swept
LAKEWOOD RANCH — The host Mustangs swept Sickles 25-16, 25-11, 25-17 Tuesday night to return to the region finals a second straight year.
Lakewood Ranch (22-5) led 19-11 in the final game when Sickles (16-13) made a run to cut it to 20-16. The Mustangs responded with a 5-1 run.
Staff writers Joey Knight and Bob Putnam, and correspondent Darek Sharp contributed to this report.