PALM HARBOR — There may not have been a more entertaining high school volleyball match played throughout the bay area Thursday night than the one that went down between Palm Harbor University and Bradenton Manatee.
On both sides of the net, girls were hitting the floor to extend rallies, pounding home huge kills and rejecting attacks throughout five intense games – all in an effort to be named Class 8A District 8 champions.
Visiting Manatee eventually outlasted PHU for that hardware, but not before being pushed to the limit by a furious rally. PHU stormed back from an 0-2 hole by winning the next two games but ran out of gas in the fifth.
“In that fifth set we just struggled on serve receive, putting that first ball away,” said PHU coach Tara Kuk. “In a short game to 15, any run is going to end up hurting you.”
Those fifth-game runs can hurt even more when the opposition possesses weapons at the net like Becca Butler, Jacqui Armer and Haley Coulter. Each slammed home three kills during the deciding set, controlled by Manatee, 15-8.
“We weren't attacking the ball so it was easy for them to get the ball outside to their big hitters,” Kuk said. “If they're in system it's hard to stop them.”
“They just showed that they wanted it in that last game,” said Manatee coach Rachel Batey. “They started playing their game.”
Butler led all attackers with 22 kills, followed by Coulter with 15. Armer stuffed six total attacks.
PHU countered Manatee's bevy of frontline talent with Naomi Mack (10 kills, five blocks) and AnnaMarie Huy (12 kills). Mack did an especially fine job hitting to the correct side of blocks to find soft spots in Manatee's exceptional defense.
Even more impressive than the night middles and outsides had at the net, though, was the digging and rallying displayed by both teams.
PHU's Ameije Ismaili, Elena Huy, Abby Walker and Emma Strong found ways to get hands on Manatee shots all night to keep points alive and set up attacks. On the other side, Manatee's Jessalyn Kinlaw led the Hurricanes with 22 digs.
After dropping the second game 25-18, things looked bleak for PHU and its hopes of back-to-back district titles. The 'Canes responded nicely, though, with a 25-21 third-game win and then followed that up by wiping out Manatee in the fourth, 25-19, to force the fifth and final set. Helping trigger that fourth-game win was seven straight service points from Walker that included three aces. Walker finished with five aces on the night.
Three games in a row proved to be just too much for PHU. The 'Canes managed to come back from 5-1 down to get within 6-5, but Manatee answered with five straight points to pull away.
Batey praised PHU's effort after taking pictures with her team and the district championship trophy.
“[PHU] played a great game,” she said. “They found our weaknesses and capitalized on them. I just think when it came down to it we wanted it and they knew what to do at the end.”
PHU now must travel to Hillsborough County for Tuesday night's Class 8A region quarterfinal match. The 'Canes will take on the winner of District 8A-7's championship match between Plant and Bloomingdale.
Manatee earns the right to stay home and play the loser of that match.
MHS - 26 – 25 – 21 – 19 – 15 --- 3
PHU - 24 – 18 – 25 – 25 – 8 --- 2