PALM HARBOR — Naomi Mack's first kill of the night didn't seem to mean much at the time. It provided Palm Harbor University an early 6-5 lead in the first game of Tuesday's Class 8A region semifinal against Bloomingdale.
Turns out it was match point.
PHU (21-8) would never trail again after that moment, swatting away Bloomingdale in three straight commanding games, 25-15, 25-20 and 25-16. The victory sends the Hurricanes' to their first-ever region final this Saturday afternoon at Winter Park (27-3).
“It just goes to show that hard work does really show results,” said Mack, who finished with nine kills and four blocks. “We've been working really hard since August and it's just a really good feeling.”
As Bloomingdale (18-12) struggled to find its footing all night, PHU repeatedly went on the attack. The 'Canes raced out to leads of 7-1 and 11-1, respectively, during the final two games.
“They dug a lot of balls and they kept a lot of balls in play and they didn't make a lot of errors,” said Bloomingdale coach Margeaux Sinibaldi. “That's a hard team to beat right there.”
PHU coach Tara Kuk said that she wasn't surprised by her team's play, but that its completeness was impressive. “We looked like these girls have been playing together for years and really this is their first season really working together as a unit.
“It wasn't surprising to me because we scouted them and we knew that most of their offense was to No. 13,” Kuk added, referring to Bulls big-hitting junior Karissa Rhoades. “I'm a firm believer that a team is going to beat an individual or two every time and I think that we proved that tonight.”
Rhoades did account for a match-high 12 kills, but PHU was up for the challenge both at the net and in the back. Jazmine Barker stepped up at the net with a team-leading seven blocks and Ameije Ismaili (21 digs) and Emma Strong (20 digs) kept up nearly everything else that got through. AnnaMarie Huy added seven kills and four blocks.
The 'Canes finally got over the region-semifinal hump this season after years of short-lived playoff experiences. They've picked up first-round wins during eight of their 10 previous postseason trips but each flamed out in the semis.
PHU's next challenge will be its biggest of the year on Saturday. Winter Park's ranked No. 2 in the state by MaxPreps.com. The Wildcats were last year's Class 8A runners-up and are a six-time state finalist and three time champ.