Prep volleyball | Manatee defends championship at Manatee County tournament

jlembo@bradenton.comSeptember 29, 2013 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Kelly Stewart wound her right arm, temporarily left the ground and swatted the volleyball right into a pair of Braden River Pirates on Saturday afternoon.

The attempt to block Stewart's shot went for naught. And on its side of the court, Manatee's volleyball team celebrated yet another county championship.

It's not a new feeling the Hurricanes. Their victory over the Pirates in this year's final clinched Manatee's second straight crown and sixth overall since the tournament began in 1999.

Only Bradenton Christian (seven) has won more county titles.

But such familiarity did nothing to water down the celebration.

"It's amazing," said Manatee outside hitter Becca Butler, a senior named the tournament's MVP after the Hurricanes beat Braden River 2-1 in the finals.

But it wasn't easy. Seeding was based on last year's results, which put Manatee and 2012 runner-up Lakewood Ranch in separate pools. And when each team went 2-0 Friday during the start of pool play, a championship rematch looked to be a certainty.

That didn't happen. The Hurricanes lost to the Pirates on Saturday morning before bouncing back to beat Lakewood Ranch in the semifinals, while Braden River knocked off Saint Stephen's to reach the county finals for the first time in program history.

Manatee's rough road didn't stop when it got to the final. Following a 25-14 win in Game 1, the Hurricanes blew a 14-9 lead in Game 2, and the Pirates won 25-19, spurred on by some stellar defensive work from Kelsea Guest. Her diving dig set up the game-clinching point.

Manatee (11-6) jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the finale before the Pirates rallied to tie the score at 6. But paced by Butler (17 kills, 11 digs, two blocks in the final) the Canes staved off Braden River and toasted a 15-7 victory.

"Our chemistry finally started clicking," Butler said. "I think we started playing as a team, and everybody was feeding off each other's energy. ... and I think that's what pulled us through.

"We didn't win our tournament at HCC last week, so that was discouraging. So we definitely wanted to come out and show our county who we are."

Jacqui Armer had five kills and five blocks for Manatee, while Kaitlyn Shaver had 20 assists, Shannon Winder had 13 digs, and Jessalyn Kinlaw had seven digs and four assists.

Shaver joined Butler on the all-tournament team.

"We did show a lot of heart," said Rachel Batey, a two-time county champ in her two seasons coaching Manatee. "And we're learning. Like I've said all season, we have a lot to learn and we've learned a lot, and I think we're going to keep growing as the season goes. I'm looking forward to October, and this was a great way to start getting into the second half of the season."

Maddie Jaco and Cassidy Barich had seven kills each for Braden River (8-7), Jaco adding seven digs and Barich five. Each made the all-tournament team as the Pirates had their best showing ever at the county tournament.

"I was very, very happy and very impressed with the way my girls played," Pirates coach Matt McElhiney said. "You always want to do well in your own county tournament. .. But in the grand scheme for us, this tournament for us was about getting better. And we got a lot better and we're hoping to carry that on to our district matches."

The host Mustangs defeated the Falcons to finish third. Bradenton Christian was fifth, followed by Southeast, Palmetto and Bayshore.

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