For the first time in her volleyball career, Gabby Coulter spent most of her season watching. She watched her Manatee High School teammates play one of the toughest schedules in Florida and come up short almost as often as they won.
With Coulter on the sideline, the Hurricanes had a cap on their potential, one that likely would leave them short of a third straight trip to the Class 8A final four.
For her first two years with the Canes, Coulter had been a foundational piece of one state champion and another semifinalist, even if her role was sometimes overshadowed by Manatee’s outside hitters. Her older sister, Haley Coulter, was the Herald’s All-Area Player of the Year the past two seasons, and her twin, JoJo Coulter, became the Hurricanes’ most important player this season.
“There are attributes that Gabby has that setters work to get,” head coach Tony Cothron said, “and it takes a while for them to get that.
Coulter has played in nine games this year — three at the start of the season before fracturing her ankle and six since returning for the regular-season finale against Riverview in Sarasota — and almost single-handedly reshaped the Canes’ postseason. Manatee (16-9) is 6-1 in games Coulter has started and finished, and it will play for a spot in the 8A championship Saturday at 2 p.m. against St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale.
To upset St. Thomas (27-2), which hasn’t dropped a set all season, the Hurricanes will need Coulter to deliver the complete performance she has consistently rattled off since returning from her injury.
During the opening weeks of the season, though, Coulter couldn’t help questioning whether these opportunities would ever emerge during her junior season. An awkward landing during the first set of an eventual loss to Sarasota left Coulter with a brief moment of panic. Her left ankle was fractured and a pair of ligaments were torn. the Hurricanes’ state-title dreams hinged upon her recovery.
“You’re going to be out. You’re going to need surgery,” her most pessimistic friends and teammates would tell her. “You’re going to be out for months.”
“I was like, ‘I give it four weeks,’” Coulter said.
It ended up being about six weeks before she returned for the Canes’ final night of the regular season. She sat on the bench through the first set before taking the floor for the second. She felt out of sync, struggling to feed her sister and Manatee’s other hitters as the Hurricanes stumbled to a four-set loss to the Rams.
A week later, the Canes returned to Bradenton to host the Sailors in the Class 8A-District 11 semifinals. Coulter picked apart Sarasota with the precision Cothron expected of her at the start of the season.
“She’s able to take control of a match,” Cothron said. “She knows what the matchups are.”
Coulter, who is orally committed to Marshall, possesses an acumen rare for even the best high school setters. She has the tools and technique to make passes both to middle blockers and outside, but she can alter the flow of Manatee’s offense herself. Cothron isn’t concerned with her always staying right in line with what he wants the Hurricanes to do — she’s smart enough to read opposing defenses and adjust.
Sometimes it just lets her rack up assists — like the 43 during the Class 8A-Region 3 championship against Palm Harbor University on Tuesday — by feeding hitters on the outside. Other times, she records kills herself.
To take her game to the next level, Coulter worked with Cothron during the preseason on dumping — a tactic which has her feign a set to a teammate and instead float the ball into an open space on the other side of the net. She had never done it much before this year. Now it’s the sort of weapon the Canes can equip that most others can’t.
“If you want to be the best you can be, you’ve got to learn new things,” Coulter said. “It’s kind of my tool.”
Who: Manatee at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas
What: Class 8A semifinals
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Where: Fort Lauderdale