PALMETTO - The small crowd around Patrece Bell grew louder with every lift Wednesday night.
They cheered her bench. Her clean and jerk. And there was always a set of arms waiting to embrace the Palmetto sophomore whenever she was done.
Hard to believe Bell never stepped into a weight room before this season.
Now, it's a sport she's happy she's embraced.
Bell finished first in the unlimited class during Wednesday's Section 7 sub-qualifier at Palmetto. The top three finishers in each class earned a trip to the state qualifier, scheduled for Jan. 24 at Sarasota.
Bell's combined lift of 270 pounds has her preparing for a shot at state championships, schedules for Saturday, Feb. 10 at New Port Richey River Ridge.
It wasn't exactly an expected goal.
"No, not at all," she said with a laugh.
A former basketball player, Bell said she just wanted to try something different. So she walked into Palmetto's weight room.
First-year coach Jennifer Stevens is glad she did.
"I'm thrilled to death," Stevens said. "She's a great girl. She works really hard, and she tries her best every day."
Manatee sent 11 girls forward, with Jenna Rio (101), Kali Walker (110), Cari Kurland (183) and Hannah Crowe (199) finishing first. Crowe's combined lift of 310 pounds was the night's best.
Lakewood Ranch scored victories from Cydney Chasky (119), Lindsay Barnes (139) and Kelsey Grabiak (169). Seven Mustangs advanced in all.
Braden River advanced Ashley Matthews (154) and Ashley Bryant (199), while Jessica Giard (129) moved on for Bayshore.
Southeast had four qualifiers, with Kim Lightfoot (129) and Kelsey Vance (154), who, like Bell, is new to weightlifting, finishing first.
"Four or five weeks ago, I think her total was 220 or something like that," Southeast coach K.C. Dunlap said of Vance, who lifted a combined 285 Wednesday. "She's steadily increased and steadily increased . . . (I told her), 'If you just get there and make it to the state - wonderful.' "