LAND O’LAKES — Nature Coast had watched one lead disappear against Land O’Lakes.
The Sharks weren’t about to let it happen a second time.
Behind a barrage of Courtney Liddle kills and Michelle Doucet aces, Nature Coast defeated Land O’Lakes 23-25, 25-18, 25-21, 24-26, 15-9, but not without a few tense moments for the visiting Sharks.
After taking a two games to one advantage, Nature Coast (12-2) appeared to have the match well in hand, running out to a 10-point lead at 16-6 in Game 4. The Sharks were still ahead 23-17, but Land O’Lakes stormed back. The Gators (13-2) took three straight points before an error made it 24-20. Then, facing four match points, the Gators pounced on the tentative Sharks and won the next six points in a row to force a Game 5.
"It was so nerve-racking," said Liddle, who finished with a match-high 30 kills. "Matches like that, it kills me inside, but that’s what keeps me going. It gives me motivation."
In the final game, Nature Coast again started strong, winning the first four points. The Sharks built a 13-6 lead but lost the next three points.
At 13-9, Liddle and Courtney Skinner made sure there would be no repeat of the previous game as the pair recorded consecutive kills to close out the Gators.
"We knew it was going to be a big game. We knew they were going to bring it tonight, and they did," Nature Coast coach Emily Gore said. "You’ve got to give Land O’Lakes a lot of credit. They never stopped, even when we had them game point in Game 4."
Both teams entered the match undefeated in district play (4A-8), but with the victory Nature Coast finds itself controlling its destiny for the top seed in the district tournament. Win next Tuesday against Sunlake and the Sharks finish as the regular-season champions.
"We needed to win this one," Liddle said. "I was just trying to do all that I could to help my team win."
Land O’Lakes led by as many as eight points in Game 1 and was up 19-14. The Sharks chipped away, drawing to 24-23 before Nicole Woodward’s kill handed the opening game to the Gators.
The Sharks’ late rally set the tone for the rest of the match.
"I liked the way we responded after we came out flat," Gore said. "We kind of worked our way out of it toward the end of Game 1."
Doucet served eight aces, Lauren Powell assisted on 40 kills and Alexa Coscia had 23 digs for Nature Coast. Woodward tallied 10 kills and four blocks for Land O’Lakes, which also got a team-high 21 kills from Teresa Della Penna.