Tuesday’s Class 8A region semifinal between East Lake and Palm Harbor University is a match between the haves and the have-nots.
The Eagles have won 10 straight playoff games and 11 of their past 12 dating to 2009. They are the two-time defending state champions and beat PHU in this stage of the playoffs last season.
The Hurricanes have not won a region semifinal — ever. They are 0-7 at this stage since 1997, and have lost four straight region semis — three to Plant and one to East Lake.
East Lake beat PHU twice early on in the regular season, both in five games. PHU topped the Eagles in the PCAC championship game and district final.
But those four matches are irrelevant. Tuesday, things either change or stay the same.
“I told the girls that this is the last battle to decide who wins the war,’’ PHU coach Tara Kuk said. “Every time we play them it’s a battle. This one is winner takes all.’’
If there is such a thing as momentum, the Hurricanes (16-12) have it. Not only did PHU win the PCAC championship, but a week ago it swept East Lake for the district title in the Eagles’ gym.
Senior outside hitter Lee Nielsen and junior middle hitter Naomi Mack are healthy again after missing matches late in the season. Senior middle hitter Logan Miller, at 6-foot-3, has been a wall on the front line. And senior setter Abbey Bouchard has been consistent all season.
“I think winning the PCAC and beating two good teams (Seminole and East Lake) on the same night was big for us,’’ Kuk said. “They started to realize how good they were and what was possible. They got better every week they were in the gym. They continue to do that.’’
East Lake (21-3) has lost two of its past four, both to Palm Harbor U. That’s considered a slump for the Eagles. But senior outside hitter Shelby Younger (leg injury) is back at full strength.
Senior libero Brooke Burkett, senior defensive specialist Jessica Steidl, senior setter Christy Dunham and senior outside hitter Mary Gillis are healthy and have all been major contributors for the Eagles.
The key to the fifth and final match against PHU, according to coach Mike Estes, is forgetting about the two previous matches.
“Let’s just do what we’ve done for the other 21 victories,’’ Estes said. “Let’s just do what we do and don’t overthink it. If we stop thinking and just play then we’ll do a lot better.
“We’re going to stay with what has worked. Just because it hasn’t worked a couple of times doesn’t mean it’s never going to work again. Just make the game simple. We’re making it a lot harder than it is.’’
Estes hopes his team will be loose and thinks the Hurricanes might feel some butterflies.
“Maybe Palm Harbor feels some of the pressure,’’ he said. “I think they might think they have to win.’’
Kuk hopes this is finally the Hurricanes’ year.
“I’ve put in a lot of time,” she said. “This is my ninth season and I think I have a team with the ability to get (to the next round) more so than ever before. We have so many talented seniors who have contributed to my program for four years. It’s very important to me to get them that experience and as a coach to get that experience.’’
7 p.m. Tuesday
8A: East Lake at Palm Harbor University
7A: Steinbrenner at Clearwater
6A: Winter Haven at Tarpon Springs
5A: Robinson at Dunedin
3A: Calvary Christian at Clearwater Central Catholic