TAMPA — The last five times Palm Harbor University faced Plant in the postseason, the Panthers ended the Hurricanes’ season in easy fashion.
The Hurricanes never took a set from Plant — and in four of those matches the Panthers used the win as a stepping stone to a state championship.
“They’ve been our kryptonite,” PHU coach Tara Kuk said.
But when Kuk took her team into Plant’s gymnasium Wednesday night, they were ready to end the hex. Along the way, they also ended a dynasty.
The Hurricanes put an end to Plant’s run of five straight state titles in just 76 minutes, ending the Panthers’ season with a whisper 25-15, 25-16, 25-12 in a Class 8A region quarterfinal.
“I’m not going to say we didn’t expect it,” PHU senior co-captain Sammy Eichelberger said. “We expected to win, we wanted to win, but it was still weird. We were like, ‘What’s going on?’ It was crazy, but it was the best feeling.”
PHU (20-7) controlled the match from the beginning, its fast-tempo offense taking Plant out of rhythm.
“Coming in, we scouted them really hard and we knew where they were going to be on the court,” Eichelberger said. “This was our time. We wanted to win more than anything.”
Hurricanes junior outside hitter Lee Nielsen led the ’Canes with 16 kills (including a perfect 7-for-7 in the second set) and 11 digs, while Logan Miller added 10 kills and Eichelberger had eight. Senior libero Caitlin Kovach had a team-high 17 digs and junior setter Abbey
Bouchard tallied 36 assists.
“From what I heard from other coaches and what I saw on tape, they are a very good blocking team, but because Abby was able to distribute the ball so well, our hitters only had to hit around one block,” Kuk said. “Our quicker offense forced them to defend.”
Plant (19-8) had just 19 team kills, by far a season low, and its largest lead was a 7-4 margin in the second set before the ’Canes scored seven straight points.
“We have not gotten beaten that bad all year,” first-year Plant coach Amy Rumore said. “I felt like they knew what we were going to do before my setter made the decision of what she was going to do.”
Now the Hurricanes get one final shot at national No. 17 and district rival East Lake, which had beaten Palm Harbor University four times this season.
“I think the girls have the feeling that this was a complete unit and there were no weak spots,” Kuk said. “Ahead of time, we just told the girls, ‘Don’t think of it as beating Plant, think of it as beating a team you’re better than.’ And if we can see East Lake as just another team and don’t worry that they’re East Lake — if we have that mindset — they can do anything.”
8A: East Lake in championship form
EAST LAKE — Pass, serve and kill.
It was just that easy for East Lake on Wednesday night.
“I think that is an amazing team,” Durant coach Brittany Wilson said.
The Eagles never trailed, cruising to a 25-13, 25-11, 25-12 Class 8A region quarterfinal win.
The Class 5A state champions a year ago, the Eagles (18-1) looked sharper than in recent matches. On nearly every sequence, they were able to get a good swing at a kill. Durant (13-13) mustered very little offense and made it even easier for the Eagles.
“Tonight, we flowed,” said Eagles libero Brooke Burkett. “Every pass was right on, perfect, and Rachel (Reed) is such a great setter, she just set it up and we killed it overtime.”
Jackie Wegner had nine of her match-best 14 kills in the third set, and Reed finished with 46 assists.
“We definitely had a lot of fun tonight,” Wegner said.
The Eagles’ hitters took turns dominating. Brianna McComeskey had five of her 11 kills in the first set, and Brittnay Estes had seven of her 13 in the second. Julia Brunner also had eight kills.
The Eagles will host Palm Harbor on Tuesday, the fifth time the teams have met this season. The Eagles won four.
6A: Warriors take out district champion
TAMPA — No district title? No problem for Osceola, the runnerup from 6A-12, as the Warriors prevailed over District 11 champion Sickles 25-21, 25-21, 19-25, 25-21 in a Region 3 quarterfinal.
“We didn’t win districts, but we came out and had so much energy,” said senior outside hitter Morgan O’Malia, who led the Warriors with 14 kills. “We kept it up, kept fighting and we played our game and held it to the end.”
An O’Malia kill in the opening game was the catalyst for a 12-1 Osceola run that brought the Warriors back into the contest and gave them a 23-19 lead. Another O’Malia kill brought Osceola to game point, and the Warriors won 25-21.
Osceola also took advantage of Sickles’ unforced errors, including 12 missed serves over the first three games. After three of the first four servers for the Gryphons in Game 2 ended their runs with misses, the Warriors had a 10-7 lead that they did not relinquish, going on to win 25-21.
Sickles fought back to take the third game 25-19 thanks to an early 8-0 run that broke a tie score and put the Gryphons ahead 13-5. Five Sickles players recorded kills, and their serves forced Osceola to make a series of substitutions in attempt to put up a pass that would allow them to run their offense.
First-year Osceola coach Ryan Kramer remained positive.
“I told them, ‘They threw the kitchen sink and two sofas at us, and we had the worst game we could possibly have,’ ” he said. “And it was still close.”
Game 4 was close throughout as well, with neither squad ever holding more than a five-point lead. In the end, though, it was O’Malia who came up with a perfectly-placed roll shot right in the middle of the Gryphons’ side of the floor to give Osceola the 25-21 game victory that sealed the match.
“I had been trying to go there all night,” O’Malia said of her shot placement. “And I was like, ‘You know what, they’re probably pushed back because I’ve been swinging, so I’ll just try.’ And it worked.”
6A: Spongers end semifinals drought
TARPON SPRINGS — Since losing 3-1 against Calvary Christian on Oct. 20, Tarpon Springs has won three matches in a row without dropping a game.
Tarpon (23-3) swept Sebring 25-12, 25-16, 25-12 Wednesday to advance to the Class 6A region semifinals for the first time since 1998.
Game 3 featured six ties before Tarpon finally imposed its will on the Blue Streak. Down 7-6, Sebring (15-11) committed two costly errors, capitalized with an ace from Tarpon’s Casey Sands then four straight kills — three by Kelsi Collins — to make the score 13-7. Collins finished with eight kills and 10 digs.
“(Sebring) kept fighting,” Tarpon coach Patrick Snead said. “It’s a game of momentum and we just caught that momentum back up, so once we got those seven (points) in a row, we had it wrapped up after that.”
A block by Kaci Zambelli and another ace by Sands gave Tarpon a firm 15-7 lead during the 9-0 run.
Ashlyn MacGregor led the Spongers with 16 kills and three blocks. Up 22-12 and looking to close out the match, MacGregor finished with consecutive kills and a block to end Game 3.
“The intensity and the feeling of being so close helped us push through,” MacGregor said. “We beat them in the first two games pretty easily, so we knew if we just stuck with it that we’d be able to close them out.”
2A: Crusaders roll past Southwest Florida Christian
ST. PETERSBURG — Canterbury has one goal in this year’s Class 2A tournament.
“We’re not going home with anything but a state trophy,” senior hitter Mansie Hough said.
The Crusaders took their first step Wednesday night with a convincing 25-6, 25-12, 25-9 win over Fort Myers Southwest Florida Christian. Canterbury hosts Sarasota Christian, which it swept in the district final, Tuesday.
In the first game Wednesday, a 3-2 Crusaders lead quickly swelled to 9-2 thanks to Jennifer Crosthwaite’s serving and Hough’s hitting.
After a side out, Lacy Scherer took over serving duties and the Crusaders (19-6) scored the next eight points for an 18-3 lead.
The first game ended fittingly with a kill from Megan Burgess, who finished with 10. Hough led the team with 13.
The second game was more of the same, with Burgess serving the first four points and Hough pounding spikes. The ’Canes (12-11) never got closer than three points.
Southwest Florida Christian battled in the third game, getting within 9-6. But Burgess and Hough, along with Jessica Paquette’s powerful serves and kills, proved too much.
“I think we are peaking at the right time,” Canterbury coach Kendrea Meyer said. “Ever since (last week) against Sarasota Christian we’ve been playing well. It’s the right time to do it.”
Compiled by staff writers Eduardo A. Encina, John C. Cotey, Laura Keeley, Rodney Page, and correspondent Basil Spyridakos.