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OCALA — Vanguard was ready and waiting for Nature Coast Saturday afternoon in the Class 4A, Region 2 final, but the underdog Sharks gave the home team all it could handle.
Hosting their second straight region final, the Knights were motivated to reach the final four and it showed with a four-game victory, 25-21, 20-25, 25-23, 25-20.
Nature Coast (24-5) leaned on captain Courtney Liddle, and the junior came up big for much of the match. She had a match-high 23 kills, but injured her ankle in the fourth game that could have sidelined her for the remainder of the contest. Instead she toughed it out and fired back with a kill on the very next play.
“She wasn’t coming off that court,” Nature Coast coach Emily Gore said. “It just shows you what kind of player she is. She definitely has bigger and better things in her future”
The first three games were a roller-coaster for both teams, but the veteran presence of Vanguard (23-8) served the most vital role of all. The Knights won the third game after the match was tied 1-1 and the game was tied at 23. Florida commit and Knights captain Holly Pole got a kill to break the tie and her sister, Mary Ellen, served an ace to clinch it.
While Holly Pole has been the leader on and off the court for Vanguard for more than two seasons, the big hitter for the Knights on Saturday was sophomore McKenzie Foster (team-high 22 kills).
The lack of depth for the Sharks seemingly caught up with them in the end, but with almost all of the team returning next season, Gore is already bouncing back with thoughts of the future.
“My mouth is already watering thinking about it,” she said. “It’s exciting to know we’ve got this group coming back.”