PALM HARBOR – It's true that, after a three-set sweep in Wednesday's Class 8A playoffs, Palm Harbor University finds itself in the region finals for the third straight year. But after an inspired finish, underdog St. Petersburg will find itself anxiously awaiting the 2018 season.
The 8A-10 runnerup Green Devils (15-10) lost the first two sets 25-14, 25-15, then saw the Hurricanes run off the first 14 points of Set 3 behind the strong serving of junior Abby Strong (two aces).
"We could have rolled over, we could have lost that game 25-3," said St. Petersburg coach Todd Maxwell.
Instead, the visitors crept back in, first on a pair of aces from junior libero Jillian Kilgroe (30 digs), followed by strong net play from senior Brooke Dolan (team-high eight kills), and hitting a peak when a pair of kills each from freshmen Kate Youmans and Madelyn Davis drew St. Pete within 24-23.
A powerful cross-court kill from junior outside hitter Jessica Angelo (team-high nine kills, one point-winning block), however, kept the 'Canes' season alive and put an emphatic end to the Green Devils' campaign.
"We pushed back," said Maxwell. "To have the ball in our hands down by one with one of our best two or three servers behind the line … we couldn't ask for more."
That was the lone scare that PHU (18-4) had to deal with against an opponent it has beaten four times this year and 12 straight – all in sweeps – since St. Petersburg last won on Sept. 3, 2013.
"I just told the girls that we have to play a full match, not a game at a time," PHU coach Dexter Rogers said. "We have to have consistency across the board."
Rogers saw the best his squad can offer in a near-perfect second set. Junior Malia Barker's serving befuddled the Green Devils while powerful hitting from Angelo, sophomore Katy Cameron (seven kills and four blocks) and junior Jessa Mielke (six kills and four blocks) drove the hosts to an easy victory.
"Coach said multiple times that we were playing the best we've ever played," Mielke said. "It would have been nice to have finished better, but, at least, we did finish."
Now PHU moves on to Tuesday's region final against Venice, which had to rebound from a two-set deficit to knock out district rival Manatee, 16-14 in the fifth set.
"It's always fun to win, so now we just have to work on the things we didn't do well in Game 3," Rogers said. "We did a lot of really great things, we just have to play all together right to the end."
And St. Petersburg looks to a bright future.
"We're basically returning our whole team," said Maxwell, who is only graduating Dolan from his starting rotation. "Next year, we hope to host a playoff game, something we haven't done since the mid-'90s. The girls are hungry for it, they want it, and I think we're putting things together for a season to go in the record books. We have things right on the cusp."