BROOKSVILLE — Nature Coast breezed through another playoff opponent Tuesday night and stamped its ticket to a second consecutive region final.
The Sharks swept Zephyrhills in the Class 5A region semifinal at home 25-14, 25-15, 26-24 and have yet to lose a game this postseason.
“This was destiny waiting to happen,” Nature Coast captain Courtney Liddle said. “Everything has really fallen into place for us this year.”
Nature Coast (25-2), which set a school record for wins with the victory, found a groove early. The score was tied at 5 in the first game before the Sharks went on a 7-0 run and never looked back.
Liddle, the star senior hitter, took a backseat to her teammates to open the match and allowed Courtney Crawford and Michelle Doucet to take control. Crawford, a transfer from Hernando, had six of her 13 kills in the first game, while Doucet had three of her six.
“(Crawford’s) been down this road before,” Nature Coast coach Emily Gore said. “She’s battle-tested, and we have a lot of confidence in her.”
Liddle (18 kills, two aces) seemed to dominate more as the match went on, racking up more kills with every game. Doucet added two aces, and Crawford had one.
Zephyrhills (18-9) had a terrific run end with the loss. After opening the season sluggishly, the Bulldogs got hot at the right time and rode a winning streak to a district title.
The senior-laden squad was led by Kaitlyn Blount (11 kills, one ace) and Tori Jordan (six kills), both of whom did their best to keep their team in the semifinal.
6A: Springstead sputters after strong start
GAINESVILLE — Springstead could not ride the wave of a strong opening game, and the best volleyball season in school history ended against Gainesville.
The Eagles (22-6) jumped out to a quick lead but unraveled after the first game as the Hurricanes cruised for a Class 6A region semifinal win 20-25, 25-14, 25-17, 25-18.
Coach Tim Harris said his team could not overcome the play of Gainesville’s 5-foot-11 middle blocker, Kayla Bivins, a USF commit. Bivins ended the game with 21 kills and 13 blocks.
“I thought we played a little nervous, a little tentative,” Harris said. “We started trying to do things that weren’t us. We pressed. Our passes were off. I think that was out of respect for Kayla.”
After a clean first game, Springstead started committing more and more unforced errors — double hits, lifts and wayward serves. Harris credited Gainesville’s home crowd, particularly its students, for creating an adverse environment.
Outside hitter Marissa Welch (seven kills, three aces), middle hitter Zoe Mannino (six kills, one ace, three blocks) and outside hitter Megan Morrison (five kills, two aces, two blocks) led the Eagles’ attack.
Setter Allyson Schillinger had 13 assists and added three kills. Also, Carly Wiggins contributed three kills, an ace and a block.
After dropping the second and third games quietly, Springstead jumped out to a 10-4 lead in the fourth, but Gainesville (18-11) rallied after a timeout. The Hurricanes went on an 11-3 run and held on to close out the match.
Tuesday’s loss ended a year in which Springstead set a school record for most wins in a season, Harris said. The Eagles also won their first district championship and came out victorious Nov. 2 against Ocala Vanguard in the Class 6A region quarterfinal, the team’s first win in the state playoffs.
“I told them to just keep their heads up,” Harris said. “They have a lot to be proud of, a lot they can say they accomplished.”
3A: Bishop wilts against experienced foe
TAMPA — Bishop McLaughlin’s best playoff run in school history ended when the emerging program ran up against one of the most established teams in the state.
Tampa Prep jumped out to an early lead and held on late to sweep the Hurricanes 25-8, 25-19, 25-19 in the Class 3A, Region 4 semifinals.
“They have 15 state champions,” Bishop McLaughlin coach Doug Chinchar said. “We’ve been around for, what, six years?”
Tampa Prep (16-11) led the entire first game, as Bishop McLaughlin (16-9) never scored off its own service. Chinchar attributed the early struggles to the nerves of his team playing in a gym with eight state title banners since 1991.
“The girls are pretty fired up to go,” Terrapins coach Jessica Lamm said.
As Bishop’s jitters faded, so did its errors. Standout senior Jessica Johnson led a second-game comeback with one of her 10 kills followed by an ace and a Tampa Prep error that gave Bishop a 7-6 lead — its first of the match.
The Hurricanes also used longer services and got aces from Colleen Finnican and Kelley Hill. Bishop lobbed more at the net to force miscues against a team that swept the Hurricanes twice this year.
“It was working,” Chinchar said.
But the Terrapins were too strong. Junior outside hitter Katie Krueger — a 6-foot-3 Virginia Tech recruit — blasted a kill and back-to-back blocks to turn a tie into a Tampa Prep rally that seized control of the second game. Krueger finished with a match-high 23 kills.
Krueger’s three kills in a four-point span in the final game helped the Terrapins pull away and end the Hurricanes’ turnaround season.
“We’re a few years behind,” Chinchar said. “We’ll be ready for next year.”
Compiled by staff writer Matt Baker and correspondents Derek J. LaRiviere and Tyler Jett.