On paper, Gulf didn't appear to have a chanche against Ocala Forest Tuesday. The Buccaneers brought a 7-13 record into Forest's gym and were forced to leave with two starters _ both seniors _ back in New Port Richey with the flu.
Gulf put forth a valiant effort, even leading the first game 14-8, but 5A-7 champion Forest pulled it together to beat the Buccaneers 16-14, 15-11 to advance to Friday's regional semifinals.
Forest held off three game points in the first while rattling off eight unanswered points to take the first game 16-14.
"They just wanted it and knew what they had to do," Forest coach Cindy Repp said of the 45-minute long epic first game. "They just kept coming."
"I told them, 'We've worked too hard and too long for this. We've got to get down to the game that we've been playing for the last five or six games. This is not the same team. We've got to come back.' "
After winning the first, the Wildcats opened up an 8-1 second-game lead but then had to hold off the stubborn Buccaneers 15-11.
"They're a very good team. You can't take it away from them," Repp said. "They kept coming back. It was just a matter of us fighting back harder."
Forest (20-9) opened up a 7-3 lead in the first game behind the strong play of setter Tara Conner. The senior recently returned from a fractured hand but her 11 assists, four kills and tow aces eliminated any doubts about her condition.
After trailing 7-3, the Class 5A-District 8 runner up Buccaneers came alive thanks to sophomore Laura O'Brien. She had five kills, four aces and six service points in the first game alone. O'Brien finished with 10 kills, six aces and three blocks.
With O'Brien serving, Gulf (7-14) fired off six straight points to take a 14-8 lead. After a service error forced a sideout, Forest began talking to each other on the court.
Two Gulf errors closed the Buccaneers out despite frantic efforts by Gulf coach Shari Schau to right the ship with two timeouts in the game's final four points.
With the momentum clearly on the home Wildcats' side, Forest jumped out to a quick 8-1 lead in the second game.
Three of Forest's eight points came via Buccaneer miscues. After Gulf's Megan Seeber killed Forest's serve, she took over and put up two service points. Moments later, the gap was narrowed to 8-5 after two O'Brien kills.
Forest's Julie Swiderski's solid service game kept Forest comfortably ahead, however. She had two aces and three service points to open up an 11-5 lead.
Gulf would make one more run at the Wildcats, getting as close as 13-10 behind three Seeber kills and four O'Brien service points.
"That's kind of been our thing all season long. We get down real early in the match and fight our way out of it," Schau said. "Sometimes we get out of it and sometimes we don't."