TAMPA — This year's volleyball district realignment placed Gaither and Sickles together as the only true district title contenders in Class 5A-9.
There were no longer cross-county battles with Countryside and Mitchell, which this season made it difficult for Gaither and Sickles to gauge themselves even though both teams played well in weekend tournaments.
"It's hard to tell how good we are," Gaither coach Tim Boylan said. "It's hard to tell because volleyball is such a momentum kind of game."
But given the way the Cowboys and Gryphons dispatched their opponents in Tuesday's district semifinals — both teams won in three-game sweeps — these teams were on a collision course to meet in Thursday's district final long ago.
Sickles, the second seed, defeated No. 3 seed Leto 25-9, 25-13, 25-11 in the first semifinal. Top seed and host Gaither needed just a little extra to beat No. 4 Freedom 25-15, 25-15, 27-17 in the nightcap for its ninth straight win.
Gaither, a team with nine seniors, can win its first district title since 2003.
The Gryphons, who clinched their sixth straight region tournament berth Tuesday, last won two years ago.
On Thursday, the teams will meet for the second time with a district banner and a region home game on the line.
Just three weeks ago, Gaither beat Sickles in four games; that was after the Gryphons started 13-1.
"We definitely had a bad night," Sickles senior outside hitter Lauren Ramsey said. "We didn't put forth our best effort. That's what made it tough. It would have been something else if we played our best, but to lose like that was tough."
"We know they're going to want it," Gaither senior middle Jenna Clark said.
On Tuesday, both teams dominated. Sickles senior right-side hitter Morgan Gola had 10 kills. Ramsey has eight kills though she played just two games. Carlye Owens added 19 assists in two games for the Gryphons (20-4).
For Gaither (17-3), outside hitter Laura Ackart led with 14 kills and 21 digs. Clark added 10 kills and setter Emily Hussin had 27 assists.