CLEARWATER — The final 10 points of Tuesday's district match between East Lake and Clearwater encapsulated the night.
Down 2-0 and clinging to life in the third and final game, the visiting Eagles grabbed some momentum and went up 21-16. But as it went all night, the Tornadoes stormed back in response to regain control.
Helped by the clutch serving of Darby Oaks, Clearwater scored nine of the last 10 points and closed out a sweep of its rival. The victory also secured Class 7A District 9's top seed come tournament time later this month.
“Tonight I've really got to give credit to Darby,” said Clearwater coach Kara Betourne. “She came in when we were down [late in the third game] and that's got to be so much pressure back there serving and trying to catch up. She just did not crumble under pressure whatsoever. I've got to give the game ball to her tonight.”
Though admittedly not a crisp all-around performance, Betourne credited her girls for staying mentally tough throughout three close games.
“Tonight I wasn't so happy with their passing,” she said. “It's East Lake, there's a lot of pressure because of districts, we're home with a big crowd; all that combined kind of threw off our passing.
“But I told the girls from the start that this was a mental game. Our mentality really pulled us through this game more so than the physical aspect.”
Helping offset some of the assisting difficulties was the combined efforts at the net from Samantha and Meghan Reeves, Ciara Lusnia, Allie Russell and Maddie Rubino. Samantha Reeves closed out the victory with a pair of solid spikes.
As for the Eagles, missed opportunities summed up the night.
“We don't know how to close,” East Lake coach Michael Morris said. “There's this atmosphere where they tend to get timid and nervous and youth is not an excuse anymore.
“We've got a full season under our belt, we've played good teams, we've risen to the occasion in certain moments, but it's just consistency of finding who wants to step up to make that big play.”
Five points was the largest deficit faced by East Lake all match and Games 1 and 2 were tied late at 24-24 and 22-22, respectively.
“We just have to close out games,” Morris reiterated. “Each of those could have been ours but we let them get away.”
Julia Cummings led the Eagles with six kills, followed by five apiece from Kelsey Smith and Sierra McComeskey. Libero MaKenzie Powers held down the backcourt with 33 digs and also recorded five service aces.
Tuesday ended regular-season district competition for both squads. A victory by East Lake (12-7, 3-2) could have forced a three-way tie for first place with Clearwater (19-4, 5-0) and Seminole (15-9, 4-1).
“It would have made all four of us 4-1,” Morris said. “It's real disappointing, especially when I feel like we had them at every moment.”
Clearwater now holds sole possession of first place heading into the Oct. 21-24 district tournament hosted by Seminole. The Warhawks will enter as the No. 2 seed, followed by East Lake, Countryside, Northeast and Pinellas Park.
East Lake and Clearwater both get back on the court this week for Thursday matches. The Eagles host Clearwater Central Catholic and the Tornadoes travel to Tarpon Springs.
The teams will also take part in next Wednesday's Pinellas County Athletic Conference tournament finals hosted by East Lake. Palm Harbor University is the top seed, followed by St. Petersburg, Clearwater and East Lake. Competition begins at 6 p.m.