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ST. PETERSBURG — They ended their regular season by losing three of their final four. The last two were 3-0 routs. The postseason prospects were dim for the Canterbury Crusaders.
But after beating nemesis Cambridge twice then traveling to West Palm Beach for a surprisingly easy victory in the region final, the Crusaders find themselves today in Lakeland, one game from playing for a state championship.
At 2 p.m. in a Class A semifinal, the Crusaders take on favored South Daytona Warner Christian.
Canterbury (27-6) is the first private school team to advance to the state final four since Keswick Christian in 1999.
“When I talk to my club friends at East Lake or Palm Harbor and I tell them I go to Canterbury, they’re like, where’s that?” said Mansie Hough, who leads the team in kills (368) and digs (469). “We’re really happy that we are the team that puts Canterbury on the volleyball map, at least for now.”
The Crusaders have been led by Hough and middle hitter Megan Burgess, who is second in kills and aces and leads in blocks.
They are, according to each other, the fire and ice of the team.
Hough is the fire — a frantic whirlwind of a player who will lay out for a ball then scramble to her feet a second later to put one away.
She has been huge in the playoffs, averaging almost 18 kills in three region matches, including a season-high 22 in Saturday’s win over Summit Christian.
“She’s done it all year,” said coach John Milkovich.
“I would say she’s pretty amazing,” said Burgess. “Every game she is running all over the court. She’s everywhere. And I mean, literally, everywhere.”
And if Hough isn’t stirring the Crusaders’ drink, it’s Burgess. At 6 feet, she is your prototypical middle blocker, but also possesses a solid defensive game and one of the best serves on the team.
While the team feeds off Hough’s breakneck style, it is Burgess’ blocks that really put a charge into Canterbury.
“Oh, she goes crazy,” Hough said. “Everyone in these big matches is waiting for her to make that play and freak out.”
While Hough and Burgess are Canterbury’s key players, Milkovich says this year’s squad has been three years in the works.
Though Burgess’ sister Samantha is a freshman setter, other key components like seniors Sarah Fleming, Emma Brody and Alexis Conway have helped push the Crusaders into unchartered territory.
“I know it sounds cheesy,” Hough said, “but I guess you could say we’re the little team that could.”