EAST LAKE — Palm Harbor University engaged in some wishful thinking entering Tuesday’s Class 8A region semifinal against rival East Lake.
Maybe the Hurricanes would be confident after knocking off five-time defending state champion Plant in the region quarterfinals. Maybe PHU could not only extend Tuesday’s match to five games, as it did in the conference championship, but beat the Eagles for the first time in five matches this season.
So much for wishful thinking.
East Lake (21-1) came out strong, dominating the first two games to cruise to a 25-8, 25-10, 25-23 victory and move on to Saturday’s region final.
“We wanted to jump out ahead and get off to a good start,” Eagles middle hitter Brianna McComeskey said. “We really didn’t want to give them anything and make sure we were getting our serves in. We wanted to make sure (PHU) was earning their points.”
Whether it was McComeskey or Brooke Burkett hitting low rockets that smacked the floor or Rachel Reed smashing line drives that whizzed above the net, East Lake’s serves gave the Hurricanes head aches.
Reed finished with six service aces and Burkett added four. And when the Eagles’ serves were not hitting the opposite end of the court, they were keeping PHU on the run and preventing its offense from getting into a rhythm.
“The last time we lost a set to Palm Harbor we had five service errors in that game,” East Lake coach Mike Estes said. “That was a big part of our practice this past week. We wanted to make sure we were getting our serves down to keep them from running their offense.”
The first two games were closely contested through the first 10 points. Then the Eagles bore down in each one to build commanding leads. In the final game, the Hurricanes had a 21-20 lead but allowed East Lake to score five of the final seven points to close out the match.
Brittnay Estes led the Eagles with 14 kills and McComeskey added eight.
“We knew we were going to get a good match with PHU,” Estes said. “They weren’t going to just give the match to us. We were going to have to earn it.”
6A: O'Rourke boosts Clearwater past Steinbrenner
LUTZ — Clearwater senior outside hitter Nikki O’Rourke was forced to watch the end of her team’s first match against Steinbrenner from the bench.
The 5-foot-7 Florida recruit injured her hip during the Tornadoes’ three-set pool-play loss to the Warriors in the Gainesville Gator Classic on Sept. 9.
But Tuesday, O’Rourke had her chance at redemption, with an opportunity to put her team in Saturday’s 7A region final.
And throughout a five-set match that had its share of anxious moments and momentum shifts, the spring-footed O’Rourke played her biggest match of the season. She paced Clearwater with 22 kills, including four in the final set, as the Tornadoes ended Steinbrenner’s season 22-25, 25-21, 25-22, 24-26, 15-6.
“Knowing that we almost beat them last time,” O’Rourke said. “I knew we could beat them this time. We’ve had some tough practices getting ready for them.”
Steinbrenner rallied in Game 4 despite losing an early 10-5 lead in a set that included nine lead changes. Tied at 24, Warriors middle hitter Lauren Heldt had a quick-set kill and Madison Seuzeneau ended the set with a cross-court kill for a 26-24 win.
But that’s when the Warriors’ drive stalled. Steinbrenner had seven attack errors, allowing Clearwater (22-8) to run out to a 13-3 lead in the fifth set.
“We just found the fire,” coach Kara Betourne said. “We knew the final was going to be at home and we wanted to bring it back for the team and the fans as well. But we capitalized on their mistakes. We were just jumping higher, kind of focusing more and reading them well.”
The Tornadoes spread out their attack, with Sara Myslicki adding nine kills, Allie Russell seven and Samantha Reeves six.
6A: Spongers roll after falling in Game 1
Tarpon Springs dropped the first game of its 6A region semifinal, then stormed back to win the last three against Winter Haven . The Spongers are one win from their first state semifinal appearance since 1993.
The Spongers beat Winter Haven 22-25, 25-19, 25-19, 25-23 Tuesday night and will host Lakewood Ranch on Saturday.
Credit a new district (minus East Lake, Palm Harbor U. and Clearwater), the emergence of hitter Ashlyn MacGregor or the assimilation of new setter Jenn Smith into the lineup, but the Spongers are enjoying a dream season.
“I didn’t really expect this,” said coach Patrick Sneed. “I knew that with the changing of districts …and that we had a little talent behind it we could be good. But not until about the third week of the season did I see something special here. Right now we’re just having a lot of fun with it.”
After some early nerves — and 14 errors in the first game — the Spongers seized control.
“I think getting that first win in Game 2 was a relief,” Sneed said. You could see they were more aggressive after that.”
MacGregor, a junior starting to attract college interest, had a match-best 22 kills, Kelsi Collins had nine and Kaci Zambelli added seven for the Spongers (21-4). Smith, a transfer from Pennsylvania, had 35 assists.
5A: Lakewood ends Robinson's Cinderella run
TAMPA — On a night when Robinson honored Kathy Bruckner-McCourdy, part of the school’s first girls volleyball team, the Knights took an unceremonious exit from the 2011 playoffs.
The Knights hung with the Spartans for the first half of Game 1 Tuesday, but were overwhelmed by great defensive play and the power hitting of Lakewood senior outside hitter Berkley Whaley.
“We knew they would be consistently hitting the ball deep, so we played line-in defense and we were very effective at it,” Spartans coach Sean O’Flannery said.
The Knights jumped out to a 4-0 lead to start Game 1 and were up 12-8 when O’Flannery called a timeout.
“I think we came out a little flat but I called the huddle and told them it’s their game to win,” he said.
The Spartans came out of the timeout and outscored the Knights 17-7 to close out the game 25-19. Whaley crushed the game winner.
Game 2 was more hotly contested early. It was tied at seven, eight, nine, even 10 all. Then the Spartans went on a 13-4 run before Robinson could slow things down. Whaley and Lakewood continued to put the pressure on Robinson, executing great jump serves to complement her kill shots.
Robinson had two chances to get momentum back, once at 19-11 and again at 23-14. Both resulted in Robinson serves into the net. The Knights collapsed in Game 2 25-18. Whaley scored the 25th point of Game 2 as well.
“It’s an awesome feeling finishing a game like that,” Whaley said.
The Spartans jumped all over Robinson to start Game 3 and the Knights were fractured and out of synch. They fell behind 8-2, then were down 10-5. Robinson finally dug out a Whaley spike only to have her waiting at the net for the return. Junior middle hitter Sarah
Donnelly got in a few kill shots. The Spartans finished off the Knights 25-20 to sweep the match.
It was a bitter end to the season but Robinson coach Ryan Wheatley recognized the team’s improbable accomplishments this year.
“People in Tampa know who Robinson volleyball is now,” Wheatley said.
“It will make people think when Robinson volleyball walks out onto the floor, now,” echoed Robinson senior hitter Katie Hogan, who has accepted a scholarship offer from Southern Methodist University.
But it’s Lakewood that moves on. Whaley’s 22 kills, more than seven per game, dominated.
3A: CCC pushed to the limit, but prevails in five
CLEARWATER — Tuesday night’s Class 3A region semifinal between Clearwater Central Catholic and Indian Rocks Christian looked a lot like the district final the teams played over a week ago. There were momentum swings, hotly contested points and a tense fifth and final game.
It turned out to be the same result, different gym.
Indian Rocks Christian battled from a 2-0 hole, but CCC regrouped and eventually won 25-19, 25-20, 23-25, 20-25, 15-13. That’s the same Game 5 score as the district final.
The win marks the first time since 1998 the Marauders have advanced to the region final. They will host Fort Myers Evangelical Christian on Saturday.
The Golden Eagles have lost six straight times in the semis.
“I told them that they may never be here again so have fun and lay it on the line,” CCC coach Stephen Shepherd said. “There is no tomorrow, and we went out there and took the first two games. The momentum changed a little bit, but we hung in there. I’m so proud of them.”
The first game was an indication of how the match would turn out. There were nine ties and no team led by more than five points, and that’s when CCC led 5-0. But with the score tied 19-all, the Marauders ripped off the final six points behind the serving of Rachel Miller.
CCC (24-7) narrowly won the second game behind the front line play of Morgan O’Brien and Macayla Chianco. But IRC (21-9) stormed back thanks to the power hitting of Madi Loebel and Emiline Lazzeri. In the fourth game, with the Marauders mounting a mini comeback, Loebel finished with an emphatic spike to force Game 5.
In the final game, the Marauders jumped out to a 7-1 lead on kills by Kalyn Baird and O’Brien. IRC tried to inch closer, but the game ended when Natalie Feathers’ serve sailed long.
“When you start the game down (six) points on stupid errors, that’s too big of a hole,” Golden Eagles coach Mark Foster said. “We just made too many mistakes. We lost that game in the beginning, not at the end.”
Marauders hitter Katie Moore, who was a force blocking shots, said the district win over IRC boosted her team’s confidence.
“When the games get closer, we work even harder,” Moore said. “Even when we were down, we knew we could win. And the fact that we beat them in districts just made us know that we could beat them again.”
2A: Crusaders tested, but result’s the same
The old cliche about the difficulty in beating the same team three, four or five times in a season didn’t exactly hold up Tuesday at Canterbury, as the Crusaders beat Sarasota Christian.
But it was definitely much tougher. Winning for the fourth time against the Blazers proved a monumental challenge, but one the Crusaders were up for as they won a Class 2A region semifinal 25-23, 26-24, 25-13.
“Both teams wanted it badly. You could tell Sarasota Christian wanted it very, very, very, bad,” said first-year Canterbury coach Kendrea Meyer. “They were very scrappy and nothing touched the floor.”
Eventually, a Mansie Hough kill from the back row that touched the floor did the Blazers in. Hough’s kill completed a second set comeback from a 22-19 deficit, and a disheartened Sarasota Christian team offered little resistance in the final set.
“I’m just glad we were able to finish them off,” Meyer said. “I did not want to go four or five games.”
Hough finished with a team-high 14 kills and 18 digs; Megan Burgess added 10 kills and 14 digs. Meyer said a big key was establishing middle hitter Kayla Perry, who had seven kills.
Canterbury (20-6) will play Saturday’s region final in Boynton Beach against Lake Worth Christian as it bids for a second straight state semifinal berth.
6A: Osceola swept
Host Lakewood Ranch ousted Osceola 25-21, 25-21, 25-23. The Mustangs had never won a playoff match until last week, which followed its first district championship. They had beaten Osceola twice on the road.
Compiled by staff writers Bob Putnam, Rodney Page, John C. Cotey, Eduardo A. Encina, Laura Keeley and correspondent Andy Warrener.