Tony Cothron placed his clipboard on the empty chair and reverted to hand signals.
The most crucial juncture of Manatee’s Class 8A-District 11 volleyball semifinal on Tuesday wasn’t determined by Cothron’s coaching tactics.
Rather, it was determined by the players. The freedom Cothron, the Hurricanes’ head coach, gave was rewarded when Manatee rallied during a two-point deficit late in the second set to edge visiting Sarasota, before completing a 3-0 sweep of the Sailors.
“I use my clipboard for a little motivation,” Cothron said. “Slapping it, hitting it, trying to get them fired up. I just said, ‘You know what? At this point in the season, they need to take control of this match.’”
Manatee’s 25-20, 25-22, 25-15 victory pushes the Canes into Thursday’s district championship at top-seeded Venice, which knocked off Braden River in four sets in Tuesday’s other 8A-11 semifinal.
JoJo Coulter paced the Canes’ attack with 19 kills, while chipping in 15 digs on defense. Grace Mumford also added 15 digs, while a healthy Gabby Coulter popped off seven kills to go with 24 assists.
The junior setter returned to Manatee’s lineup for the regular-season finale at Sarasota Riverview last week, but played sparingly in preparation for the postseason following an ankle injury sustained earlier in the year against Sarasota. Inside Manatee’s gym on Tuesday, Gabby Coulter was back for the entire match.
Cothron unleashed her into the lineup, and Manatee’s attack changed.
Using defensive specialist Kara Saylor in Coulter’s stead, Manatee (12-8) relied on outside hitting. With Coulter setting, Manatee’s offense flows around.
“With Gabby, we can run anything,” Cothron said.
Coulter got started early, setting to twin JoJo for a ferocious kill in the first set to give Manatee a 17-7 lead, before tipping a winner on the subsequent point.
Then in the last two sets, she was instrumental to Manatee closing out the Sailors in three.
Coulter, who injured her left ankle when rolling it on a teammate’s foot after coming down from a block attempt against Sarasota in early September, said it was nerve-racking playing her first full match since the injury. She added it felt sore after the match.
Add in how integral her role is for the Hurricanes success — Gabby, twin sister JoJo and older sister Hayley, who graduated last year, helped Manatee win the program’s first state title in 2014 — and Gabby Coulter said there’s pressure to perform.
“It’s hard knowing I have expectations for when I came back, but as long as our team is playing OK then it’s fine,” she said.
On Tuesday, her performance and the team’s play was more than OK.
Part of that comes from Coulter’s insertion into the lineup, but also from the chemistry she’s developed from playing with several of her teammates over the years. But to get back there, Coulter needed to ice, rest and elevate her injured ankle for a few weeks.
All the while, she endured watching matches from the bench. But the fun atmosphere the bench generates kept Coulter from mental anguish.
And in the district semifinal against the Sailors, she provided the Canes’ bench with even more to cheer about.
“We have a lot of energy on our team,” Coulter said.