TAMPA — Gaither's first region tournament appearance in five years began with players wearing newly printed purple district championship shirts in front of a home crowd.
The Cowboys worked an entire season for this right, to host a region game, and at one point Tuesday, Gaither was just one set from earning its third region tournament win. But the Cowboys' season ended quickly as Gaither dropped a 2-0 games lead and skidded to a 25-21, 25-22, 10-25, 16-25, 5-15 loss to Naples Gulf Coast in the 5A region quarterfinals.
"The momentum thing is huge in volleyball," Gaither coach Tim Boylan said. "You saw it right there. In the first two games, we were getting everything in, and then it just reversed and we weren't able to turn it back again."
In the first two games, the Sharks (22-5) showed some effects from their 21/2-hour drive up I-75 with several service errors and awry shots.
But a Gaither team with nine seniors, eight of them in the rotation, couldn't close out Gulf Coast. The Sharks immediately turned the match around in Game 3, taking an 11-3 lead. Gulf Coast then pulled away from a 14-12 lead in Game 4 with a pivotal 6-1 run and tied the match.
"It hurts, man," Boylan said. "It definitely hurts, especially when you're up 2-0 and it looks like you're cruising and then everything turns on you."
Then in Game 5, the Cowboys' season ended with all three of their 6 footers on the bench — partly because of rotation, but also because Boylan wanted other players in — and Gaither was simply outmanned by taller hitters.
Laura Ackart led the Cowboys (16-4) with 33 kills and four aces. Senior middle hitter Jenna Clark added 17 kills and seven blocks while Emily Hussin had 41 assists.