LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Last year, a novice Lakewood Ranch volleyball team went on the road for its region final and won.
This year, an experienced squad was at home in the region final and lost.
It might take the Mustangs most of the winter to figure out what happened in their 3-0 defeat to Naples Gulf Coast on Saturday in the Class 7A-Region 3 final.
Gulf Coast (22-8) was a district runner-up and now has beaten three district champions on the road to earn a trip to this week's state final four.
The Sharks defeated both Stuart Martin County and Fort Myers in five game matches. Lakewood Ranch (23-6) had it relatively easy in winning its second straight district title and cruising to the region final winning six of seven games. They lost 25-22, 25-16 and 25-22 to Naples Gulf Coast.
"It absolutely helped us winning two matches in five games," Gulf Coast head coach Christy Wright said. "Martin County had three match points on us. Fort Myers came back and won games three and four easily, so we were down in their gym. We weren't nervous from that, and it helped our confidence. We don't get down and we know we can come back."
Lakewood Ranch head coach Perri Hankins, who guided Lakewood Ranch to its first volleyball final four last season, wouldn't argue that assessment.
"We did get a little unlucky when we weren't challenged in some of our matches and then you try to go back in practice and challenge yourself and it's hard. I did think a little about that," Hankins said. "I was just saying what we have gone through (with injuries) we could have easily not gotten out of our districts."
Lakewood Ranch looked as if it might launch a comeback in the third game when it scored six straight points to take a 19-16 lead.
But the Mustangs couldn't hold on. They led 20-17 before the Sharks closed out the match on an 8-2 run and won the last four points of the third game.
"We just try to play our game. We don't really game plan against the other team. It's not football," Wright said. "We didn't know much about Lakewood Ranch other than they were a good defensive team and had a good outside hitter. You just fight for every point, and that's really all we were trying to do."
Nicole Grant led Lakewood Ranch with 12 kills, and Ashlyn Falahee had 11. Ali Milbourn had 25 assists, and Ande McDonald had five digs. The Mustangs racked up 35 kills to 41 for the Sharks.
"There were a lot of feelings involved. We were nervous, and we were excited, and there was a lot on our minds," Grant said. "I think we were thinking too ahead. We would get up and then think too much and fall back and then we lost some momentum. It's rough, but we've got next year."
Lakewood Ranch loses four seniors (Falahee, Milbourn, Savannah Sears and Lauren Owens) who helped make the Mustangs arguably Manatee County's premier volleyball team.
"We are trying to feel good about this even though it's a loss. We just didn't want it to be 3-0, that was the part I felt bad about," Hankins said. "We didn't play well, that is not our normal team. We never got flowing, and everything was out of synch all three games. I was hoping the luck of being home was going to help us out a little bit. It's incredibly hard to get to state."