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In order to believe they can beat an East Lake volleyball team that has handled them with relative ease four times — four times! — already this season, the Palm Harbor University Hurricanes needed to prove they could change history.
They needed to prove that what has happened before doesn’t need to happen again.
They needed to get that gorilla — you know, the big furry guy wearing an albatross around its neck — off its back.
Beating Plant last week in the region quarterfinals, the same school (but maybe not the same team) that had knocked them out of the playoffs the previous five postseasons, couldn’t have been scripted any better for PHU coach Tara Kuk.
“Yeah, there’s no way that couldn’t have helped their morale or esteem,” Kuk said. “To be the team to take Plant out of playoffs for the first time in five years. And we played our best game. It’s a great time to be peaking.”
Plant, however, is not East Lake. Not even close, not this year.
The Eagles see PHU (20-7) peaking, but raised them one peak with a thorough performance. East Lake destroyed Durant last week in one of their best matches of the season.
Though the Eagles beat PHU in three games for the district championship, Caitlyn Kovach had a solid night defensively, and Kristine Fuller and Lee Nielsen showed some spark. Nielsen had one of her best matches of the season against Plant with 16 kills.
Kuk remains confident the Hurricanes can reverse course. She said one aspect has failed her team in each game, whether the hitting, the defense or the passing. “Always one major part missing,” she said, adding that the Hurricanes were “amazing” against Plant.
Duplicating that performance, or even exceeding it, is the only way the Hurricanes can get past East Lake in their fifth meeting.
“They are an error-free or limited-error team,” Kuk said. “We will have to earn our points.”
Rest of Tuesday's slate
All games at 7 p.m.
2A, Sarasota Christian at Canterbury (19-6): The Crusaders are trying to get back to the final four, and have already dispatched the Blazers thrice, with each game more lopsided than the previous one. Mansie Hough (309) and Megan Burgess (288) are the leaders in kills, and in digs.
3A, Indian Rocks Christian (21-8) at Clearwater Central Catholic (23-7): This is the third meeting between these teams. IRC won the regular-season matchup, and CCC took a five-setter to win the district. Both teams played beefed-up schedules this season. IRC relies on the big front line of Madi Loebel (352 kills) and Emiline Lazzeri (235 kills). CCC counters with Kalyn Baird (303 kills) and Morgan O’Brien (286).
5A, Lakewood (18-8) at Robinson (18-10): The Knights have been the Cinderella story out of Hillsborough County this season, making it this far for the first time since 1978. But Lakewood will have the best player on the floor with outside hitter Berkley Whaley, a Florida commitment who will try to get the Spartans to the third round for the first time since they went to state in 1994.
6A, Tarpon Springs (20-4) at Winter Haven (21-6): The Spongers have won a region game for the first time since 1998, when they won two. The Spongers have won their past six sets (two matches) by an average score of 25-15. Junior Ashlyn MacGregor has been tremendous, with 40 combined kills.
6A, Osceola (9-8) at Lakewood Ranch (20-7): A meeting of teams that won the first region playoff games in school history last week. Former USF volleyball coach Perri Hankins leads Lakewood Ranch, and district runnerup Osceola is riding the strong net play of senior Morgan O’Malia.
7A, Clearwater (21-8) at Steinbrenner (24-4): Perennial playoff team Clearwater and senior standout Nikki O’Rourke will have to find a way to slow Miranda Powell and Madison Seuzeneau, who each have 300-plus kills. Steinbrenner won a previous meeting between the teams, but the scores indicate how close these squads are: 29-27, 28-30, 15-7.