PALM HARBOR — Palm Harbor University has won six straight matches, is playing its best volleyball of the season and seems to be peaking at the right time.
Red-hot PHU is hardly a team anyone would want to meet right now.
Unless you are East Lake.
So with wins by both arch-rivals Tuesday night, a fifth meeting — the teams have split four matches in 2012 already — in next week’s region semifinals is now officially on the schedule.
PHU did its part in setting up the biggest game of the season, beating Wharton 25-22, 25-20 and 27-25.
It’s the fifth straight season the Hurricanes (16-12) have won their first-round game. They are 0-7 in the second round.
But this may be their year. The Hurricanes used a fast offense led by Naomi Mack and determined defense to dispatch the Wildcats (25-3) in winning their sixth straight match.
In the decisive moment against Wharton, 5-foot-8 hitter Mack delivered the biggest plays.
With Wharton trailing 1-0 but leading 20-19 in the second set, Mack delivered a kill-block-kill-block sequence that stopped an 8-1 Wildcat run as PHU scored the final six points. Logan Miller served an ace to close it out.
In the final set, the score was tied 13 times, but at 25-25 Miller delivered a kill, and on PHU’s second match point the Wildcats dug the serve but failed to make a pass as two hesitant players watched the ball hit the floor.
Mack finished with 14 kills to lead PHU.
“She was so on,” said setter Abbey Bouchard, who had 32 assists and 19 digs. “Her hits were straight down. I just had to get her the ball.”
Lee Nielsen added 13 kills and 20 digs, and Randi Dawson had 19 digs and a handful of key kills.
Bouchard said the Hurricanes are playing their best volleyball.
“We’re definitely hitting our peak,” she said. “Right now, we feel like nothing is going to stop us.”
8A: East Lake sets up PHU rematch
TAMPA — Once again, Plant mounted a furious comeback after trailing big early in a postseason match.
But the Panthers ran out of miracles Tuesday.
East Lake, the two-time defending Class 8A champion, was undaunted by Plant’s playoff moxie and methodically went about making the next step in its title defense.
Mary Gillis and Shelby Younger combined for 34 kills and the Eagles shook off their first-set collapse in a 3-1 victory at Plant in the region quarterfinals. East Lake won 26-28, 25-16, 25-22, 25-21.
“We couldn’t put it away in the first set,” said East Lake coach Mike Estes. “But in the next three sets, we answered any run they had with a run of our own.”
The Eagles (18-3) have won 15 of their past 17 games, with the only two defeats during that run coming against the 8A-8 champion and district rival Palm Harbor University.
East Lake will get its rematch against Palm Harbor University, which won its regional playoff against Wharton. This will be their grudge match, as they’ve split four matches this season.
Early on, it seemed as if Plant (15-11) might continue the slow start-fast finish formula that carried it to the 8A-7 championship last week; the Panthers rallied twice to pull out five-set victories in the semifinals and finals of the district tournament.
Trailing by as many as 10 points in the first set, Plant relied on its defense and timely contributions from a deep and versatile roster including Ashley Cozart and Angel Gaskin to tie the game at 25.
Cozart had a kill and Taylor Hart, a 6-foot-2 senior middle blocker, came up with a set-clinching block for the 28-26 victory.
“They just don’t give up,” said Plant first-year coach Jessica Lamm. “It’s a real tribute to these girls.”
East Lake was unfazed by its first-set failures and pulled away late in the next three games, including a 5-0 run to close out the fourth.
“We didn’t let (the early loss) get in our heads,” said Younger, a senior outside hitter. “We just had to play our game at our own speed.”
Plant, 10-time state champions, have been bounced out of the playoffs in the region quarterfinals two straight years after a five-year state championship streak.
6A: Tarpon takes charge from start
TARPON SPRINGS — The first step toward Tarpon Springs’ return to the Class 6A state tournament was an easy one. The Spongers jumped out early Tuesday against Lake Gibson and never let up in a 25-5, 25-7, 25-9 region quarterfinal sweep.
The Spongers, who never trailed, set the tone right away. In the first game, Tarpon Springs broke a 2-2 tie by scoring 10 straight points behind the net play of Ashlyn MacGregor and Ashley Keiser and Lake Gibson errors.
The Spongers (23-3) scored nine of the last 10 points to finish off the first game.
“We didn’t know what to expect so we came out ready for anything,” junior outside hitter Kelsi Collins said. “We wanted to get off to a fast start. This was our best start all year.
“We have a problem of starting off slowly, so we knew we had to start fast in this one.”
The momentum carried into the second game. MacGregor continued to dominate at the net and serving. She finished with 13 kills, six blocks and four aces.
Tarpon Springs led 5-0 in the second game. A couple of Hannah James kills and more Braves errors made it 9-3. Lake Gibson cut it to 13-6, but the Spongers scored nine straight points behind two aces from Collins, blocks from MacGregor and Allie Cullens and two kills by Keiser.
The Spongers took a 7-1 lead in game three before a Lake Gibson time out, and went up 13-2 thanks to more strong net play.
Lake Gibson (14-8) picked up two points on Spongers errors, the only time since its first two points of the match the Braves scored two straight points. Tarpon Springs finished it off with a MacGregor kill and an ace by Collins.
“Our serving was great tonight,” Spongers coach Patrick Sneed said. “We missed only one serve all night. We stressed that this week, be more consistent, be more aggressive. We did a lot of things right tonight.”
Collins had 12 digs, six kills and three aces. Dominique Scalisi had 19 assists.
Sneed said it was nice to see his team take charge early and not let up in an elimination game.
“Once that momentum gets going, it just keeps feeding itself,” Sneed said. “It went right into the second game and then on into game three.”
6A: Osceola swept by Sickles
TAMPA — Sickles didn’t play its best Tuesday night, but it was enough to sweep Osceola 25-18, 25-20, 25-17 and advance out of the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.
Junior Lauryn Nelson dominated the match and started it off with a bang by crushing a kill shot for the first point. The Gryphons never really got into rhythm except for a rally in the second set.
“We weren’t as intense tonight as we were for districts,” coach Robert Brashear said. “It was just a matter of getting them to turn it around and I know they can do that.”
Senior Blaire Beamer made her biggest contribution at the service line. She only hit a couple aces but her first one closed out Game 1 and the other produced game point in the second. Senior Paige Lee also got into the action in the second, hitting her three kills.
Beamer’s presence at the net proved too much for the Warriors to hit through, and the Gryphons attacked at the net with almost no opposition.
“We have five good hitters; any one of them can get on a streak and take off,” Brashear said.
2A: Crusaders falter on the road
After making the state semifinals in 2010 and the region final last year, Canterbury had an unexpected exit in the region quarterfinals, losing 26-24, 24-26, 25-9, 23-25, 9-15 at Southwest Florida Christian Academy.
The Crusaders started strong, opening up an 11-4 lead in the first game. But they struggled with their passing the rest of the night. Things got worse in the third when Canterbury lost setter Sam Burgess to an eye injury. Burgess came back in the fourth game but the Crusaders had trouble getting into any kind of a rhythm on offense.
“It was tough because our passing wasn’t always there for most of the match,” Canterbury coach Kendrea Meyer-Penrose said.
Staff writers Rodney Page and Bob Putnam, and correspondent Andy Warrener contributed to this report.