CLEARWATER — Tied at two games apiece against Fort Myers Evangelical Christian, Clearwater Central Catholic volleyball coach Stephen Shepherd had a simple fifth-game strategy.
"I told them we're going to swing to win," Shepherd said. "If you guys swing to win and it's out or long, so be it. I don't want to play it safe. Let's play to win."
The strategy worked. CCC started quickly in the decisive game and rolled in a 16-25, 25-19, 25-23, 22-25, 15-11 win Saturday in a Class 3A region final. The Marauders (25-5) will play Orlando First Academy in Tuesday's state semifinal in Kissimmee.
It is CCC's second straight appearance in the state final four. It was also the third straight time it had played the Sentinels in a region final. Last season, CCC won in five games at Evangelical Christian.
A return trip to state did not appear likely after the first game. Tied at 12, the Sentinels went on a 4-0 run thanks to CCC errors and kills by Sydney Ferguson and Emily Laquidara. The Marauders never really threatened after the run. Evangelical Christian (23-6) scored the final four points.
The Marauders started slowly in both the second and third games but finished strong. In the second, Katie Moore had two key blocks and a Sentinels error accounted for the last three points.
Clinging to a 24-23 lead in the third, Moore came up with the game-clinching kill. There were eight ties in the fourth game, but at 13-13 the Sentinels scored five of the next six points. The Marauders tried to mount a comeback, but it ended when a Caroline Forester blocked a kill attempt to end the game.
CCC scored the first five points in the fifth thanks to kills by Rachel Odell, Moore and Shea Hamilton. The lead ballooned to 8-3 before Evangelical started chipping away.
The match ended when the Sentinels' Taylor Ferguson served into the net.
"We didn't really change anything, we just played better," Hamilton said of the slow start. "We knew what to expect from them. They are a very hard-hitting team and very smart. We just kept points alive and kept playing hard."
Hamilton led CCC with 18 kills. Moore added 12 and Jenna Dykstra 10. Maria Jose Amundaray had 37 digs. Setter Megan Kovach had 19 assists.
The Marauders lost in the state semifinals last year. They know it won't be easy this year.
"We knew this would be a monster hurdle," Shepherd said. "But it surely doesn't get any easier after this."
8A: PHU fights, but falters in the end
Palm Harbor University's deepest postseason run in program history came to an end Saturday afternoon.
The Hurricanes (21-9) held early leads in the first two games against Winter Park, last year's Class 8A runnerup, but could not maintain momentum as they fell 25-15, 26-24, 25-19.
While Palm Harbor had trouble receiving serve much of the match, Winter Park (28-3) capitalized by making huge runs.
"That's a serious squad we went up against, but I think we really could have challenged and beat them," PHU coach Tara Kuk said. "There was just a lot of errors on our side that kept us from staying in it."
The most damaging mishaps came in the second game after the Hurricanes jumped to a 10-4 lead. Winter Park battled back to take a 15-14 lead during a stretch that included four PHU errors, setting the stage for the most crucial portion of the match.
The Hurricanes led 22-19 before two kills by Winter Park's Beth Nordhorn and multiple errors by both teams knotted the score at 24. The Hurricanes then had a shot blocked at the net, which was followed by a kill from Brittany Kelly.
"We had a huge opportunity there with the lead but just couldn't get to 25 first," Kuk said. "Our serve-receive defense and ball control needed to be the best that it could be, and unfortunately I think we used it up against Bloomingdale (in the region semifinal)."
All but three seniors return next season for PHU, which advanced to region for the sixth year in a row.
"No one likes losing, especially with as hard as my girls work," Kuk said. "But they made history, and who couldn't be proud of that?"
J.C. Carnahan, Times correspondent