Lexi DeLeon wagged her finger to the crowd as the final jeers came from the Venice student section. Kara Saylor’s last serve floated over the net and the Indians’ offense set into motion. The ball moved to the middle of the court, where Venice attempted its final kill.
Manatee’s blockers followed and stood toe to toe with middle hitter Kelly Hubbard and leapt as she leapt. Middle blocker Stefani Keller lifted her hands straight above her head and set Hubbard’s shot back across the net. The Indians scrambled for a moment before the ball fell to the floor. Manatee’s side of the net broke into chaos after a four-set win in the Class 8A-Region 3 semifinals Thursday.
The Hurricanes’ bench emptied. A mosh of a huddle formed in front of the nut. Head coach Tony Cothron waited on the bench for an extra second, pumping his fists before joining his team. Keller simply stared at her hand.
“It blocked it,” she told assistant coach Jocelyn Geraldson.
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“Are you going to frame it?” Geraldson quipped back.
Keller finished with four blocks, including the game-winner to seal the Canes’ 25-23, 25-19, 23-25, 25-22 win in Venice. After an early two-game lead threatened to fade inside the Indians’ Teepee, Keller brought a swift end during the fourth set.
When the music stopped blaring at Venice High School and Manatee’s postgame celebration subsided, Cothron found a spot in the front row of the bleachers to slump down, exasperated after an emotional victory ensured a third straight trip to the region championship match with the Canes’ first win in Venice since at least 2006.
“That was some good volleyball,” Cothron said. “I don’t really know the last time Manatee’s beat Venice in their gym. I think you’d have to go back a long way.”
The Hurricanes (11-8) will face either Palm Harbor University or Tarpon Springs East Lake on Tuesday. The Canes would travel to Palm Harbor if PHU wins, but host East Lake if the Eagles win.
In 2016 alone, the Canes had lost a pair of road matches to the Indians. A four-set loss in late September, though, came without star setter Gabby Coulter and their latest loss in the Class 8A-District 11 championship a week earlier lasted five games after the Hurricanes led through three. With Coulter back in the lineup, the Canes’ offense operated smoothly.
I’m pretty sure that both teams knew this was going to be a battle no matter what.
Tony Cothron, Manatee head coach
Coulter dished out 42 assists Thursday, helping Manatee build the early cushion it needed to avoid a rockier second half of the match.
“Knowing what could happen with Gabby back, we knew where to go,” said outside hitter JoJo Coulter, Gabby’s twin sister. “We knew how hard they fought and what their coaches want, because they’re good coaches. We knew we had to work around them.”
Coulter was on the finishing end of most of her sister’s assists, finishing with 23 kills, plus 14 digs and a yellow card. Venice (24-4) nearly tugged control of the match away from the Hurricanes early during the fourth game, jumping out to a 7-2 lead as Coulter shouted at the referees. The umpire eventually got fed up and flashed yellow at Coulter. Cothron took a timeout.
“Listen,” Cothron told his players, “you can’t worry about what they do, or the officials. We have to take care of the ball on our side, we have to put the ball in the center of the court and put it away. If you put the ball away, then there’s no questions.”
The Canes scored their next point on an error and Coulter sprinted back to the service line. She served four times and pulled Manatee back within one point. The Indians’ next rally lasted only one serve before the Hurricanes answered back with three more in a row to take a lead. The lead changed hands six more times during the final game before Saylor went back to the line with the game tied 22-22. The Canes never gave the ball back to Venice.
“We knew that if we had lost it would be over,” Coulter said. “This is it. We have to go hold on to this.”