There will be a lot at stake when Chamberlain and Brandon play tonight at 6:30 in Brandon.
The match pits two of the county's top three public schools, and the winner might receive the top seed in the Class 5A-District 6 tournament, and win the Western Conference's American Division title.
Both teams have lost to Plant, but are still among the county's best. Chamberlain suffered its first conference loss last Wednesday, when it was swept by the Panthers in two games. Suprisingly, the Chiefs don't consider the defeat a setback; instead, they chalk it up to experience and look ahead.
"We needed the defeat to show us what mistakes we were making, both physically and mentally," said Chiefs outside hitter and defender Lin Little, who has collected 48 kills on the season. "I don't consider this match any more pressure, rather an opportunity. The key for us is to be consistent, stay confident and have good blocking and defense."
But both the Chiefs and the Eagles need this match. The Chiefs want to end their losing streak and avenge last year's loss to the Eagles in the district finals. The Eagles want to prove their loss to the Panthers was just a fluke and that they can repeat as district champions.
Brandon coach Frank Vining downplays the match, however.
"We'll treat this as just another match," Vining said. "It's not the end of the world. They have a lot of players back from last year and they're a good team, but no one is really that great."
Vining's punch will come from hitter/blocker Allison Beecroft and second-year starter Sarah Clark. Both girls missed practices on Wednesday and Thursday due to illness. Look for Racheal Morgan with some big points at the service line.
Chiefs coach Gregg Latter, who scouted the Eagles earlier this season, sees this match another way.
"This is easily the most important match of the season for us," Latter said. "We have to work on our unforced errors, our blocking and our defense. We can play a lot better than we did against Plant. I have to give them (Brandon) credit. They are a threat to us, but we're not afraid of them."
Latter's arsenal includes a feisty 5-2 senior, Amber Overby, who has 111 assists on the season. Little, Beth Van Fleet, Susan Hawks, Rebecca Driscoll and Kerry Mitchell will be the starting six.
The Hillsborough Terriers lost two matches by default last week to the Chiefs and the Panthers. The match, originally scheduled for Thursday, was moved to Wednesday three weeks prior. Terriers coach Leroy Long said he was never informed about the change.
"It was a terrible mix-up," Long said. "I didn't get the message from our athletic director Jim Hadley. The girls were especially disappointed because before this, we were off to our best start in a long time (3-2)."
The Gaither Cowboys go into the toughest part of their season tonight when they face Bloomingdale, then Brandon next Tuesday with Chamberlain the Tuesday after that. All matches are on the road. The Cowboys (5-2) only losses were to Plant City and Plant.
"We've had the nicest part of the season up front," coach Michelle Lamont said. "We lost to Bloomingdale in three games last year, but this year we have a tough defense, excellent setting and hitting. We've drastically im-proved."
Junior Aveva Salter, a 5-8 outside hitter, leads the team in kills, averaging eight a game.
Speaking of Gaither, former Cowboys player Emily Crall recently broke the school-record for assists at Florida Atlantic University. Crall, a senior co-captain for FAU, has recorded 1,559 assists. She surpassed the school mark of 1,425 last week.
Crall already holds the mark for most games played (390). She returns to Tampa this weekend to play in a two-day tournament at the University of Tampa.
_ Staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.