MORE from our HomeTeam writers.
EAST LAKE — The big middle is gone from the two-time defending state champion. The high-flying outside hitters have moved on. The silky setter is spinning her magic elsewhere.
So yeah, this version of East Lake volleyball won’t intimidate you on sight, growl at you after points or whoop it up so loud after a big block that the rafters rattle.
Not yet anyway.
But give it time.
A team searching for its identity in the wake of the two best seasons in school history — compiled mostly by players now off to college — might have found one Thursday night, however.
Against arch- and district-rival Palm Harbor University, East Lake bounced back from a flat fourth set and fought off a match point before slipping past the Hurricanes 25-21, 20-25, 25-20, 18-25, 17-15.
“It is kind of a new team, but I think we’re showing everyone that we are just as good and just as strong as we were,” said Mary Gillis, who served aces on the match’s final two serves.
Since a season-opening loss to Clearwater jolted the Eagles to reality, they have won 10 straight. Dating to 2010, the Eagles have won 48 of 50 matches.
Sierra McComeskey’s kill tied things Thursday night at 15 in the decisive set, and Gillis’ aces — “ridiculous serves,” PHU coach Tara Kuk called them — served up the latest victory.
“This team has a lot to prove,” said East Lake coach Mike Estes. “I use that as a little fuel. That’s kind of what I told them in the fifth set.
“I said if you guys want to show me you are a playoff team, then win this set.”
East Lake led it 9-5 and 11-6, but PHU pulled even at 13 behind two of 6-foot-3 middle Logan Miller’s team-high 18 kills.
PHU’s Lee Nielsen tied it at 14 with a kill then gave the Hurricanes a 15-14 advantage and a chance to win.
But McComeskey knocked one down to tie it, and Gillis dropped in two perfect serves — the last hitting the floor before any ’Canes could get to it — for the win.
After going 0-5 against them last season, it’s hard to imagine PHU coming any closer to beating the Eagles than it has this season.
In their first matchup this season, the Hurricanes led 2-0 before the Eagles won the last three games.
Thursday, they had match point after fighting back to win the fourth set and forcing a fifth behind Naomi Mack (16 kills, seven blocks), Nielsen (15 kills, 28 digs) and Miller.
The Eagles, though, still have some key contributors from their back-to-back title teams to lean on such as Gillis and Shelby Younger, key reserves last year who combined for 43 kills Thursday, and Brooke Burkett, the county’s top libero who moved to outside hitter and had 15 kills.
Jessica Steidl, starting at libero, had another outstanding match with 58 digs.
“The Clearwater loss was hard on us,” Younger said. “We saw we were not as strong as we thought we were. We needed to pull through and start thinking about what we needed to do.
“Winning these are definitely confidence-builders. I think we’re going to do pretty good throughout the season.”