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District volleyball a free-for-all

Three talented teams, two playoff spots.

All season, Central, Hudson and Zephyrhills have proven their volleyball teams are among the state's best. They've trounced lesser teams and given each other headaches in head-to-head play.

By Wednesday night, though, one of those teams will be home planning for next season.

Starting tonight, regular-season records are forgotten as the first round of the Class 4A, District 8 playoffs begin, with Hernando facing Pasco at 7:30 at Hudson High School.

The winner of that game will earn the right, or rather the daunting task, of facing the other powerhouses, starting with top-seeded Hudson at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

"There's nothing we can do _ we have one of the toughest districts in Class 4A," said Hernando coach Kimi Hellenberg, whose 15-8 team will be the underdog against teams with a combined 60-14 record.

The Class 5A playoffs also begin today, with Springstead, 0-10 in its district, playing at River Ridge.

Throughout the year, Central, Hudson and Zephyrhills have shown the ability to beat each other, drawing a question mark as to who will be the district champ.

Zephyrhills, ranked ninth in the state, split two regular-season games with No. 3 Hudson. While unranked Central lost twice to Hudson, the Bears have beaten Zephyrhills twice.

Hudson has rolled for most of the year, largely on the big-swinging arm of senior Kerri Rulison. Her attacking and blocking had her on pace to be recognized as an all-state selection.

Last week, though, Hudson (24-3) lost its huge edge as Rulison tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee. She will be out the rest of the season and in rehabilitation for several months. Still, Hudson placed third last weekend in the Bishop Moore Invitational, which included some of the top 4A teams in the state.

Central coach Jim Jensen said the loss hurts Hudson, but not enough to leave them defenseless.

"They still have a lot of talent on that team _ enough to carry them a long way," he said. "She had a lot of help from her supporting cast."

No individual player, rather overall talent, carried Central and Zephyrhills this season. But they achieved success in different ways.

Zephyrhills (17-5) relied mainly on its tall hitters/blockers while Central (19-6) survived with a quick defense that dug and moved taller, slower blockers from side to side.

The Bears did just that in their last meeting with the Bulldogs, winning in three games after using its quickness in the second.

"Top to bottom we are pretty quick and we get to balls that most others can't get to," Jensen said. "They're a big, powerful team and we have to rely on the crafty side.

"They may be big and slow, but their aggressiveness makes up for their lack of speed."

Central will be in the same position as rival Hernando.

The Leopards, state semifinalists last year, have defeated Pasco twice this season _ both in three games.

But that, Jensen and Hellenberg said, doesn't set a trend. Rather, it sets the stage for an upset.

"Trying to beat a good team three times in a season is a tough thing to do," Jensen said. "It's going to come down to who wants it more and makes the fewest errors."