It was far from easy, but East Lake downed an inspired Hillsborough team 15-12, 15-12 in the Class 6A, District 5 semifinals to advance to Friday's championship match at King High School. There, the Eagles will meet Gaither, a 15-3, 15-6 winner over Leto.
"They were playing good and we were a little off," said East Lake's Faith Tarver, who led all players with 13 kills.
"Our team just showed it could play together," said Terrier senior Erica Opala.
From the start, the Terriers (7-8) proved to be very tough customers. Neither team ever led by more than four points in Game 1, and that was when Hillsborough broke open an 7-7 tie with three Erica Poirer aces and a Eagle kill that found the net. At that point, the Terriers led 11-7 and had the momentum.
They soon lost it.
East Lake (19-8) fought back, with a little Terrier help. A Hillsborough carry and a couple of kills that fell long brought East Lake to within one. Then, a pair of authoritative Tarver kills gave the lead back to the Eagles for good.
Game 2 was a chance for Hillsborough to come back. Down 6-1, then 11-5, the Terriers chipped away until tying it 12. Three sideouts later, though, East Lake's Molly Dolon rang up a couple aces, then a Terrier return hit the side antenna, ending the match.
Still, on the Hillsborough side, there were no regrets.
"I just couldn't be prouder of them," said Terrier head coach Robin Holland Coleman. "This team just has a huge heart."
They also had some fine performances. Poirer was a force at the net with five kills and three blocks while senior outside hitter Kate Caballero (six kills, six aces, four blocks, eight digs) was all over the gym.
Awaiting the top-seeded Eagles will be No.
2 seed Gaither (11-3), which didn't have much of a problem dispatching sixth-seeded Leto (2-12), an upset winner over King on Tuesday.
Leading the way was Jessica Sattler, who registered four kills and five aces. The Falcons returned just one of her serves. Gaither's Tally Payne had five kills to lead all players.
"We definitely have the skills, we just need to get the attitude," said Gaither coach Kevin Reynolds. The Cowboys lost a tough three-game match Oct. 9 to the Eagles and have always had problems with their rivals from Pinellas County.
The championship match is set for 7 on Friday night at King.