PALM HARBOR — Every team is looking for the "It" factor, that certain something that separates it from the rest of the pack. The Venice volleyball players have theirs all bottled up.
"We carry around this bottle and we leave it open during our matches," said Venice coach Brian Wheatley, holding up the plastic vessel as he spoke. "This is a team that has that 'It' factor."
That bottle may play a positive psychological role for the Indians, but having a long history of success in the rearview mirror, a tough schedule built for improvement and two busloads of rabid fans ready to travel doesn't hurt. Bringing ear-ringing energy to Palm Harbor University for Tuesday's Class 8A region final, Venice shook off tense early-set action to win going away, 25-23, 25-21, 25-21.
Now with a 25-4 record, the Indians will host Tallahassee Leon in the state semifinals Saturday.
"We played everywhere — Fort Myers, Oviedo, Trinity Catholic in Ocala — we got on a bus, watched a movie, and got a routine," Wheatley said. "But when we came back from the Chicago tournament, playing the best teams in the nation, that's when I really saw the change. There was a real buy-in."
And that attitude shined when it counted most — in the late stages of every set.
Behind kills from LuAnn Sondergrass and Jessa Mielke, the Hurricanes (18-5) started Game 1 strong, jumping to a three-point lead while later holding an 18-17 advantage. The second and third sets saw the combination of setter Abby Strong (26 assists and three kills) and Jessica Angelo (19 kills) — both juniors — step up as PHU held slight advantages at the midway mark.
"That's the most consistent she's played this year," Hurricanes coach Dexter Rogers said of Angelo.
"She's so physical. … She has to continue to get better and she is, but it's never enough," Rogers said with a chuckle.
With Angelo powering the offense from all over the court, the 'Canes were competitive. But Venice had another gear left via its 1-2 punch of setter Paige Canevari and middle hitter Kelly Hubbard.
Hubbard (22 kills with no errors) mashed four kills as part of a 6-3 run that locked up the first set and three more in a 7-3 skein to take Game 2. In the third, Caitlin Montgomery (10 kills) and Hubbard combined for five kills to close out the victory.
With each squad only graduating one player, a rematch next year is a strong possibility.
"We've got to get better because we know (Venice is) going to get better," Rogers said. "We've got to get stronger and we've got to continue to get mentally tough.
"This is a great group of kids that like each other and work hard. Unfortunately, they just came up short (Tuesday)."