ST. PETERSBURG — Palm Harbor University is heading to the Class 8A region final for a fourth straight season. But, boy, did the Hurricanes have to work hard to get there.
After taking a 2-0 lead on district rival St. Petersburg, the Green Devils roared back to force a fifth set. PHU (22-6) hung tough and eventually won 25-20, 26-24, 9-25, 23-25, 15-11. It was the fourth time the teams met this season. St. Petersburg (23-6) won the district final over PHU to snap a near five-year losing streak to the Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes will play at Venice on Tuesday in the regional final.
"I think the biggest thing was how we came together," PHU senior libero Zeena Khazendar said. "That's our biggest strength. No matter how much we are down we stick together. We were able to finish in those tight games.''
As expected, the first set was competitive. There were 10 ties when a Nicole Robison kill for St. Petersburg made the score 18-18. Then the Hurricanes rattled off six straight points to pull away. A Hurricanes' block ended the set.
Things looked good for St. Petersburg in the second set when it took an 18-10 lead after a long rally that ended on a Robison tip over the net. But the Hurricanes came storming back with six straight points thanks to kills from Katy Cameron and Jess Mielke and Green Devils errors.
PHU kept chipping away and scored the final two points of the set on kills by Abby Strong and Kylie White.
St. Petersburg, and especially outside hitter Julia Gilby, started heating up in the third set. The Green Devils scored the first five points and never trailed. Gilby had eight kills in the set and ended the night with 29 kills. She set a school record for career kills with 517.
"The girls did not want to go out in straight sets," St. Petersburg coach Joe Abad said. "They knew that they could win, we just had to keep fighting."
The Green Devils fought their way back from a 12-6 deficit in the fourth set. They took a 22-21 lead, their first of the set, on an ace by Lauren Golder. Madelyn Davis and Robison each had a kill and an errant PHU spike ended the fourth set.
In the fifth, both teams exchanged points until it was 10-10. Then PHU scored five of the final six points to pull away. Malia Barker, Mielke and White had big kills down the stretch.
"You knew it was going to be like this because that's what they do," PHU coach Dexter Rogers said. "They won that third game and really put us on our heels. And then Julia gets hot and there's nothing you can do. Luckily we were able to get it to a fifth game and pull it out."