PALM HARBOR — Turns out East Lake isn’t quite ready to pass the volleyball torch to Palm Harbor University.
Despite losing its previous two matches — the conference and district championships — to the Hurricanes and getting rolled in the first set Tuesday night, the defending champion roared back, stunning the Hurricanes 10-25, 25-23, 25-19, 25-18 in the Class 8A region semifinals.
East Lake, the Class 6A champ in 2010 and 8A champ last year, stretched its playoff winning streak to 12 matches, while PHU dropped to 0-8 in second-round playoff matches.
“New sheriff in town? Not yet, I guess,” said senior outside hitter Shelby Younger.
PHU (16-13) had 7-0 and 13-3 leads in the opening set then closed it out with a 7-1 flourish to make it look like the Hurricanes could be headed for a second straight sweep over the Eagles.
But East Lake turned the tide.
“It was almost like a strategy by coach (Mike) Estes,” said PHU coach Tara Kuk. “We never expected to beat them like that.”
It wasn’t intentional. It was, however, a little scary, the Eagles said.
“We were a little frazzled after that first game,” said senior Brooke Burkett.
But kills by Mary Gillis and some back-breaking dumps by setter Christy Dunham turned the tide in the second set, as well as an adjustment made by Estes to send multiple blockers at PHU’s top hitters Naomi Mack and Lee Nielsen.
“They don’t usually triple block,” said Kuk. “They really don’t even double block that much. But we didn’t respond to it very well.”
In the third set, Burkett came up big and flashed some defensive artistry reminiscent of her days as arguably Pinellas County’s best libero. And in the last set, Younger had some crucial smashes to key an 8-3 finish after PHU tried to rally.
“Usually when we lose a game we sit there and ponder and get down, but we let everything from that first game just go,” said Younger, who had 48 digs and 13 kills.
Burkett had 34 digs (as did Jessica Steidl) and added nine kills, and Gillis led the Eagles with 16 kills.
7A: No sweet treat for Tornadoes
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 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.
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.”
6A: Spongers fall in four
TARPON SPRINGS — Winter Haven suffered a blow before Tuesday’s region semifinal even started.
Team captain and senior, Ali Mann, went down with an ankle injury in warmups. But it did nothing to slow the Blue Devils as they cruised to a 25-22, 23-25, 25-18, 25-19 win over Tarpon Springs.
The Spongers lost junior outside hitter Kelsi Collins for a bit when she came down on her knee wrong after knocking down a kill. Collins returned in Game 2 to give her team a lift behind senior Ashlyn MacGregor, who pounded 10 of her match-high 15 kills.
“(Collins) is the heart, soul and spirit of this team,” Spongers coach Patrick Sneed said. “There was extra pressure on Ashlyn after that and she just couldn’t do everything.”
The Spongers, out of rhythm most of the night, committed too many errors while the Blue Devils were nearly flawless, returning just about everything that wasn’t a blast from MacGregor. Winter Haven sophomore Megan Piatnik was devastating from the service line, with her powerful jump serves keeping the Spongers off balance.
“(Piatnik) just ripped us,” Sneed said. “We saw it on video and I tried to duplicate it in practice but I couldn’t even do it.”
Piatnik served for a 6-0 run in the third set and a 4-0 run in the fourth. The Spongers did fight off five match points in Game 4 but were closed out 25-19.
5A: Dunedin's challenge falls short
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.”
3A: CCC challenged in four-game win
CLEARWATER — For the second straight season, Clearwater Central Catholic is headed to the Class 3A region final, but not before a scare from district rival Calvary Christian. The Marauders had to fight for almost every point Tuesday night in a 25-17, 16-25, 25-22, 25-20 win.
“When you play a team for the third time it gets harder and harder to win,” Marauders coach Stephen Shepherd said. “No matter how good or bad you are, you just know it’s going to be a battle. We know each other so well and know what each other is going to do.”
CCC (22-7) relied on the front-line play of Rachel Odell, Shea Hamilton and Katie Moore as well as the defense of Rachel Miller and Casey Moore. Calvary Christian countered with outside hitters Rachel Mostert, Katie Vollmer and Carley Plentovich.
The Warriors, playing in their first region tournament, jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the first game. But the Marauders scored six straight points behind a block and kill from Katie Moore and Calvary Christian errors. CCC held a 16-15 lead before again going on a 6-0 run behind two kills from Hamilton and more Warriors errors. The game ended on a Christy Moore kill.
The second game was completely opposite. Holding a 9-8 lead, Calvary Christian (20-9) took the Marauders out of the game by scoring 10 straight points. During the run, Shelby Mahaz had two aces and two kills from Vollmer. The game ended with an emphatic kill from Mostert.
“Sometimes we have a tendency to take our foot off the gas,” Shepherd said. “If it appears to be an easy game or match we tend to lose our focus. The big thing for us is to not let up and keep that focus.”
Shepherd shifted Hamilton and Odell to different sides on the front line in game three, and the change worked. Up 21-16, Calvary Christian tied the game on a block and an ace by Vollmer. But CCC managed to stay ahead and ended the third game with a kill from Hamilton.
The fourth game was the closest, with neither team holding more than a four-point lead. But the Marauders turned it on when they needed to, scoring the final four points thanks to an Odell kill and two blocks by Katie Moore.
“In order for us to win we had to play very hard and get them out of their game,” Calvary coach Caleb Sibert said. “That’s what we did in the second game. They have so many offensive weapons and when they’re in synch, they’re awfully tough. They passed the ball much better in games three and four.”
Staff writers Joel Anderson, Bob Putnam and Rodney Page, and correspondent Andy Warrener contributed to this report.