Stefani Keller stood at the service line during the final set of the Class 8A-District 11 championship Thursday. The match — and a fourth straight district title — was slipping away from Manatee as the crowd inside Venice High School’s gymnasium swelled to a peak.
To win, and end the Indians’ own run of 14 straight district championships, the Hurricanes needed to spin a small scoring rally into an extended run.
Keller bounced the ball twice and spun it once between her hands. She floated her serve over the net and Venice settled into its offense. A pass and set found their way to Tanner Gauthier. The Indians’ star outside hitter launched a spike back across the net as Keller raced to other position. The spike sneaked beneath Keller’s arm, ricocheting to the hardwood.
“The girls knew what they wanted to accomplish,” head coach Tony Cothron said, “and when they felt like they had a chance to probably beat this team, I think they got a little tight.”
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Three points later, Venice wrapped up its 15th consecutive district championship, rallying to beat the Canes, 25-23, 24-26, 17-25, 25-18, 15-10. Exactly one month after suffering a lopsided loss to the Indians, Manatee twice had a chance to enter the Class 8A region postseason with an upset victory, only to unravel during the final two games in Venice.
The Hurricanes (9-8) will now have to go on the road to Naples begin the Class 8A-Region 3 postseason Tuesday against Gulf Coast in the quarterfinals. A win could set up a rematch with the Indians in the regional semifinals Oct. 28 in Venice. If the Canes can duplicate their performance from the first three sets Thursday, an upset is within reason.
“Sets 1-3 were probably our better play for the year,” Cothron said.
Manatee traded blows with the Indians through the entire first three sets, with neither team scoring more than three consecutive points until the fourth set. Outside hitter JoJo Coulter paced the offense and defense with 27 kills and 20 digs. Defensive specialists Kara Saylor and Grace Mumford provided support with 15 and 14 digs, respectively. Setter Gabby Coulter facilitated one of the Hurricanes’ best performances of the season by dishing out 53 assists.
A month ago, Gabby Coulter was still sidelined. An ankle injury kept her on the bench for all but three games during the regular season and the Canes sputtered through most of the year without any rhythm. During their previous trip to Manatee it meant a four-set loss in a match which tends to go the distance. When the Hurricanes could operate efficiently, they seized a lead.
“She’s a Division I setter. She runs that offense,” Indians head coach Brian Wheatley said. “Going into Game 4, we knew we had to serve tougher and we had to get them out of system because we weren’t stopping her.”
Cothron sagged into a chair on the bench after the Canes’ effort fell short, the Class 8A-11 trophy planted beneath his feet. Manatee couldn’t put the ball on the floor during the final two sets as Tessa Bohn scooped 45 digs off the ground and Gauthier ripped off 28 kills.
A Venice assistant coach walked behind Cothron and patted the coach on the back. He congratulated him on the Hurricanes’ effort and wished him luck for the Canes’ trip to Naples.
“We’ll see you back here,” he said as he walked away. Cothron went back to talking through what went wrong and why the match slipped away.
Class 3A: Out-of-Door Academy at Seacrest Country Day, Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Class 6A: Bayshore at Lely, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Class 8A: Manatee at Gulf Coast, Tuesday, 7 p.m.