This time, Manatee’s celebration was more subdued. This time, the Canes were simply delivering on expectations, putting themselves in a familiar place as November begins and the volleyball season winds toward its end.
Less than a week ago, Manatee’s celebration in Venice was rapturous, an emotional punctuation mark to a historic win against the Indians. An injury-plagued season had come together just in time for the Canes’ most important match of the season, and Manatee’s win flipped expectations. The Canes traveled to Palm Harbor on Tuesday to meet Palm Harbor University expecting to win the Class 8A-Region 3 title.
“Every match they’ve gotten a little better,” head coach Tony Cothron said. “We’re just taking care of the ball on our side of the net and worrying about nothing, really.”
Less than a week after winning in Venice for the first time in at least a decade, Manatee topped its historic performance. The Canes swept PHU 25-19, 25-23, 25-18 to win their third straight region championship and advance to Saturday’s Class 8A semifinals against St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale. A win would send Manatee (16-9) to the state championship for the second time in three years.
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For the first time during this three-year run, though, the Canes’ roster is significantly altered. Outside hitter Haley Coulter and middle blocker Jacqui Armer, who formed Manatee’s foundation for the past two years, both graduated. Role players and secondary stars had to become the Canes’ anchors. Manatee stepped into something of a new era.
Outside hitter JoJo Coulter, Haley’s younger sister, pulled her teammates together before the new season. “OK, we lost two of our starting players,” she recalls saying, “but we’re going to have to show everyone that we can do this.”
“And that’s what we did.”
The early portions of each game at Palm Harbor University High School went back and forth despite Manatee’s eventual sweep. The first game traded hands seven times and was tied as late as 18-18. The second went back and forth five times before the Canes erased a five-point lead to finish the set on a 12-5 run. Even the third set was tied at 14-14 before Manatee twice rattled off four straight points down the stretch to put away Palm Harbor (19-3-1) and win the region.
Coulter paced the Canes’ offense with 24 kills, while fellow outside hitter Grayson Hall chipped in 15. Hall also led Manatee with 16 digs to keep the Canes’ offense in flow and set up setter Gabby Coulter, JoJo’s twin sister, to dish out 43 assists.
The setter has been the catalyst to Manatee’s late-season rebirth. An ankle injury limited her to only three matches during the regular season and the Canes focused on having her at full strength in time for the Class 8A-District 11 tournament. Tuesday was her fifth straight match back in the starting lineup and it created Manatee’s most impressive performance of the season.
“It all worked out,” JoJo Coulter said. “We had Gabby go down, which was a little issue, but now that she’s back it’s all working out.”
Saturday, however, is a contest Cothron labeled as “the match of the season” immediately after Tuesday’s win. St. Thomas is a two-time defending state champion and the No. 4 team in 8A, according to MaxPreps.com.
Manatee, for comparison, checks in at No. 15. But most of the resume was built with Coulter on the sideline. The Canes are a distinctly different team now, and Tuesday’s lopsided region championship proved it.
“We know that if we continue to play until the end,” JoJo Coulter said, “we’ll be able to win this.”