Heading into this week's Class 8A-8 district tournament, Palm Harbor University may be the most dangerous 13-12 team in the area. The season has been filled with close losses, disappointing showings in two elite tournaments and injuries.
But as the Pinellas County Athletic Conference championship match against defending state champion East Lake on Wednesday showed, when healthy and motivated, the Hurricanes can play with any team. Palm Harbor University beat district rival East Lake in four games to claim the conference title and now takes a head of steam into district play.
A tough match against Sarasota Riverview awaits Tuesday. A win would set up a fourth meeting this season at East Lake for the district championship.
Are the Hurricanes starting to peak?
"I sure hope so,'' coach Tara Kuk said. "I told the girls that the record doesn't matter if you are PCAC champions. Your record doesn't matter if you are district champions. It doesn't matter if you make it to the states. Just battle every game until the season ends. We're off to a good start."
The biggest slide of the season started Oct. 9 at Clearwater. Top hitter Lee Nielsen twisted an ankle during the match and the Tornadoes went on to win 3-1. Then middle hitter Naomi Mack was lost for a week due to injury.
The result was a loss to Sarasota Riverview two days later and five more losses at the Dig Pink tournament.
"It was tough," Kuk said. "We're not used to losing, so to lose seven in a row was hard. The girls could've held on to that, but they didn't. They came back ready to work, and that's why we've been successful."
Nielsen and Mack returned Monday for the Northeast game. Now at full strength, Palm Harbor University has won three straight and looked good doing so.
Nielsen, Mack and Logan Miller have become a formidable trio at the net. Miller, a 6-foot-3 senior, averages four kills per game. Mack and Nielsen aren't far behind with more than three per game.
Senior setter Abbey Bouchard has been consistent all season. And defensive specialists Ameje Ismaili and Randi Dawson have been all over the floor.
Now with a victory over nemesis East Lake, their first since the 2010 season, the Hurricanes are feeling pretty good about themselves.
"Our morale wasn't very high (after the losses)," Nielsen said. "But now that were all together again I don't think anything can stop us."