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Peifer primed for the kill

It's enough to make opponents cringe:

Tampa Prep outside hitter Sarah Peifer stepping back with eyes on the ball as it's set, taking her draw, moving forward while beginning her wind-up, pushing off into the air, and unleashing her whip-saw catapult of a right arm.

Don't get in the way of the ball. It could sting. So can the Terrapins.

Peifer, a Tampa Prep junior with an assassin's precision for a kill, leads her team into the Class 3A, District 6 tournament at the Academy of the Holy Names this week.

Certainly one of the most competitive districts in the state, 3A-6 includes the two top-ranked teams in 3A, crosstown rivals Tampa Prep (29-3) and Berkeley Prep (25-5), who should meet in a district semifinal Thursday night.

Tampa Prep was ranked 13th in the latest Mizuno-USA Today national poll and Berkeley was 11th, but that was prior to Tampa Prep's convincing 15-4, 15-12 victory in a semifinal of Saturday's Tampa Bay Invitational. In the tournament final, Tampa Prep ended Class 5A No. 1 Stuart-Martin County's perfect season (31-1) with a 15-6, 15-13 victory.

"It's unfortunate that two quality teams like us and Berkeley have to meet in a district semifinal," said Peifer, Hillsborough County's leader in kills per match. "This is the real state championship. Whoever wins Thursday will probably win the state tournament."

That's not to dismiss top seed Sarasota Cardinal Mooney (24-7), or Berkeley Prep's quarterfinal opponent (St. Petersburg Catholic tonight at 7:30), or Tampa Prep's Wednesday (6 p.m.) opponent Frostproof, or the host Jaguars (17-12), who beat Cardinal Mooney last week.

But barring a breakout of the measles, the Terrapins and the Buccaneers will play for the red carpet ride to another state title. Tampa Prep has won nine state titles and Berkeley seven in the past 14 years.

The 3A-6 tournament concludes Friday with the championship at 7:30 p.m. Cardinal Mooney was awarded the top seed because of a better record among district teams against state Class 3A teams and above, excluding tournament games, even though Tampa Prep and Berkeley Prep played far more difficult schedules.

With experienced players such as Peifer, her sister Katie, Aimee Boulet and Shirley Smiekel, the Terrapins are considered the favorites. But Berkeley has developed a contingent of tough young players such as Mary Leffers and Dominique Philipp for veteran Lib Hobson to set for. And the Bucs did defeat the Terps earlier this month at Tampa Prep.

Last year, Tampa Prep won 33 games without a defeat until it lost to Berkeley in the district tournament. Berkeley went on to win the state title. (Both teams were Class 2A last season.)

"We learned from that match," Peifer said. "Now we have to let it all hang out."

Class 6A, District 6: Brandon should face Chamberlain in Thursday's final. Host Gaither upset Chamberlain this season, but the Chiefs have fared well in two prestigious tournaments, including a march to the consolation final of last weekend's Tampa Bay Invitational.

Watch for a battle of hitters between Brandon's Debbie Wolfe and Chamberlain's Beth Van Fleet. Both teams have solid setters, Carrie Pullaro for Brandon and Jamie Nietz for Chamberlain. Chamberlain's Brenda Mowell (6-foot-2) is a force in the middle.

Class 6A, District 7: Bloomingdale (15-3), which won the Western Conference American Division title, should face off with host Lakeland (17-4) in Friday's final. Bulls setter Meghan Eckert has two powerful middle hitters to feed: 6-0 senior Stephanie Queen and 6-2 sophomore Kate Taylor.

Class 4A, District 9: Plant, which won the National Division crown, is the team to beat. Led by 5-3 setter Danielle Faggion, the Panthers (23-2) earned a bye and won't play until Friday, when the semifinals and finals will be held. Host Auburndale should meet the Panthers in the final.

Class 2A, District 9: Quarterfinal action begins today at the site of the higher-seeded teams. In Tampa games, third-seeded Seminole Presbyterian hosts Tampa Baptist at 4 p.m. and Temple Heights hosts Bayshore Christian at 4:30. But top-seeded Lakeland Christian, which hosts the semifinal and final rounds Thursday and Friday, will likely face Santa Fe Catholic of Lakeland for the district title.