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CLEARWATER — Clearwater is a fixture in the volleyball postseason, making the region quarterfinals for the 15th time in the past 17 seasons.
Freedom is a novice, making just its second playoff appearance in the school’s 10-year history. The difference in experience showed, at least early in Tuesday’s Class 7A region quarterfinal.
The Tornadoes jumped out to a 12-3 lead in the first game and cruised. The Patriots were competitive in the other three games, winning one. But it was not enough as Clearwater prevailed 25-12, 25-22, 23-25, 25-18 to move on to the semifinals.
“We started out slow in the first game and that might have been nerves coming over here and playing in their gym,” Freedom coach Kerry Short said. “But in Games 2, 3 and 4 we stayed right with them and fought back. We knew it was going to be tough, though, and they have some hitters who can put the ball away.”
The hitter that was the most devastating was Nikki O’Rourke. The Tornadoes senior came up with the crucial points in the crucial moments, finishing with a team-high 19 kills.
“I knew it was going to be tough competition,” O’Rourke said. “We came out strong, then had a few ups and downs and made a few errors. But we were able to come together and pull through.”
Clearwater (21-8) had to rally from a 16-13 deficit to win the second game and a 5-2 deficit to win the fourth. Each time O’Rourke ignited the comeback with either a service ace or kill.
“We came in really prepared and were ready for anything,” Tornadoes coach Kara Betourne said. “The adrenaline was there and we were pumped, especially for that first game. And we were mentally ready the rest of the way.”
Samantha Reeves (eight kills), Sara Myslicki (six kills) and Christy Dennis (two kills) contributed on offense for Clearwater.
7A: Seminole can’t slow Steinbrenner
LUTZ — When the referee motioned for Steinbrenner’s service to open the Class 7A region quarterfinal, senior Miranda Powell responded with four straight serves that ended with a hop and commanding topspin.
Powell’s opening 4-0 run, complete with two aces and two Madison Seuzeneau kills, proved to be a microcosm of how the Warriors’ night would go as Steinbrenner swept Seminole 25-15, 25-16, 25-18.
Despite notching 34 kills and 10 aces over the three games, the Warriors saw room for improvement.
“We grade each other every night, and we gave each other a C-minus,” Steinbrenner coach Jennifer Graham said. “We think we can play better.”
Seuzeneau, who recorded 16 of those 30 kills, echoed her coach’s statement.
“Next week we’re going to have to play better than what we just showed,” said Seuzeneau, who consistently hit the back and side lines with her spikes and graded her individual performance as “pretty good.” “I know I made a couple of errors here and there that will count as big points starting next week.”
The Warriors (24-4) were able to jump on the Warhawks (13-11) early in the second and third games thanks to strong serving that kept Seminole off balance and shifting its serve-receive pattern. In the second game it was sophomore Rachel Mathison who keyed a 6-0 opening run, and freshman Lauren Heldt went on a 9-0 run — complete with seven aces — in the early stages of the third game to put Steinbrenner ahead 10-2.
“She’s getting really good at placing (her serves),” Graham said. “She has a great snap, and that’s what makes her ball troublesome to other teams, because it drops at the very last second.”
The Warriors had a 22-11 lead in the final game, but a series of miscommunication let Seminole creep back in and go on a 4-1 run to make the score 23-16 before Graham called a timeout. Freshman Avery Bradshaw responded with a kill on the ensuing rally, and Steinbrenner closed out the game 25-18 to advance to the region semifinals for the second straight season.
5A: Whaley helps Lakewood roll
ST. PETERSBURG — After every match, Lakewood outside hitter Berkley Whaley ices down her right shoulder. She especially needed that ice Tuesday night.
Whaley and her Spartans teammates overpowered Lennard in a Class 5A regional 25-9, 25-2, 25-14. Whaley, who orally committed to Florida, had nine kills and as many blocks in a dominant performance against the Longhorns.
“We didn’t know anything about (Lennard) when they walked into our gym,” Whaley said. “But it didn’t matter how good they were, we still had to play to our potential. We did that in the first and second games, but we let up a little in the third game.”
Lakewood (18-8) wasted no time jumping out to a lead. The Spartans scored the first five points and led 10-1. A string of Whaley and Kim McEntergart serves, as well as kills by Leigh Buttner and Sarah Donnelly, helped widen the gap to 21-6. Fittingly, the first game was closed out by a Whaley block.
“I read an article about (Lakewood) in the district final and it said the other team didn’t show up to block,” Lennard coach Lisa Subdon said. “Neither did we.”
With Lennard (5-11) showing little presence at the net, Lakewood pounded spikes and blocks as well as aces throughout the second game. Whaley and Zora Wells were too much for the Lennard front line.
Lennard showed some pride in the third game. After trailing 9-3 the Longhorns fought back to 14-10, aided by Lakewood errors. Spartans coach Sean O’Flannery called timeout to have a talk with his team.
“I wasn’t happy,” O’Flannery said. “They started having a lot of errors. That’s when the coach gives the threat of an all-day cardiovascular practice if they don’t play well. They came out a little more focused.”
Lakewood gave up only four points the rest of the way. The game ended on two aces from Wells.
3A: CCC refocuses, gets by St. Stephen's
CLEARWATER — They were still reveling in the past, and looking forward to the future, in the process almost becoming lost in the moment.
But at the right times Tuesday night, Clearwater Central Catholic found enough focus and firepower to get past Bradenton St. Stephen’s 25-12, 24-26, 25-16, 25-23 in a Class 3A region quarterfinal.
The Marauders rode a balanced attack right into an anticipated rematch with Indian Rocks Christian, whom CCC beat to win the district. CCC (23-7) has failed to advance farther than the second round seven straight times since 1998.
The Marauders took the first game easily and led in the second 22-12 before the serve-receive game collapsed and let St. Stephen’s rally to even the match.
“I think that after the big win against Indian Rocks last week we felt a little too accomplished,” said Kalyn Baird. “Even though we took care of business in the first game, we took the second game easy. …We got a little complacent. We were looking ahead to the next game and not what we had to do at that moment.”
In the third game, CCC jumped out to leads of 10-3 and 16-5 behind freshman middle hitter Katie Moore, who had three kills and a block in that stretch. St. Stephen’s (18-8) showed signs of making another rally, pulling within 18-13, Moore had a kill to end a six-point run by the Falcons, and Morgan O’Brien added two kills to set up Baird for the set clincher.
In the final set, CCC had to come from behind after St. Stephen’s opened a 16-11 advantage.
The Marauders scored five straight, mostly on Falcon errors, and took the lead for good at 19-18 on a Baird dink.
Baird finished with a match-best 15 kills, while O’Brien had 11 and Moore added seven to go with four blocks. Megan Miller had 21 assists, and Casey Moore had 17.
3A: IRC rebounds from slow start
Indian Rocks Christian started slowly but ended strong in a 15-25, 25-15, 25-23, 20-25, 15-7 win over Sarasota Cardinal Mooney.
“For whatever reason we got off the bus flat,” IRC coach Mark Foster said. “They had some looks that we hadn’t seen and we had to change up our defense.
“But we got things going and then were able to put it away in the fifth game.”
The Golden Eagles had a chance to put it away in the fourth game. They trailed 20-19 after a call was reversed because of an IRC player being under the net. Cardinal Mooney scored the final four points to force a deciding game.
IRC beat Cardinal Mooney in three games earlier in the season.
“I don’t know what it is, but when we go down there we just don’t play as well,” Foster said. “It takes us a while to get going. Luckily, we were able to put it together in the fifth game.”
Compiled by staff writers Bob Putnam, John C. Cotey, Rodney Page and Laura Keeley.