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Top three fight for final four

The schools are the same _ Clearwater and Durant _ but things have changed considerably since the last time these volleyball teams met.

The bad news for the Tornadoes is that most of the changes have occurred in the form of injuries and because of _ this is no lie _ a tornado.

The injuries include Clearwater's starting defensive specialist Diana Paulk, who tore an ACL celebrating after a victory against Durant (a 16-14, 3-15, 16-14 decision on Oct. 18), and starting outside hitter Samantha Hawk, who went down a week later with a sprained ankle.

Ultimately, both were lost for the season and have been replaced by freshmen.

And as if that wasn't enough, a tornado hit on Oct. 27 and blew the roof off Clearwater's gym.

Clearwater has since played and practiced on the road, while still somehow managing to remain undefeated. The Tornadoes are 29-0 and have pulled off two consecutive, extremely tight, three-game victories.

Which brings them to Friday's Regional semifinal against the Durant Cougars (21-3), who are ranked No. 3, playing some of their best volleyball and anxious for a rematch.

"This is the time of year we've been waiting for," Durant coach Teri Ohme said after her team captured the Class 5A, District 11 title. "We want to play the best teams. We're not backing down from anybody."

Whoever wins the semifinal will probably have to turn around later that night and meet possibly their toughest match of the year in the regional final: Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, which has alternately been ranked No. 1 with Clearwater.

Matches for the Class 5A, South Region I final four begin at 4 p.m. on Friday with Durant vs. Clearwater. Regional host Fort Myers follows at 6 against St. Thomas Aquinas, and the final is scheduled for 8 p.m.

The survivor of this regional moves onto to the state's final four and will be the prohibitive favorite to take the Class 5A state title, considering Aquinas is ranked No. 1, Clearwater is No. 2 and Durant is No. 3.

"They (Durant) are really an excellent team," Clearwater coach Anne Balderson said. "They are a very tall team and they are strong hitters and they block well. When you get this far, you are going to meet a lot of good teams and they are one of the best."

Many people also pick Durant as the favorites, simply because all the Cougars are healthy.