BRADENTON -- Perhaps it was the enormity of the match or maybe the coach's words finally beginning to set in.
Whatever the reason, Manatee's volleyball team avoided one of its customary slow starts Thursday night. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
The host Hurricanes swept past Palm Harbor University 3-0 to clinch the Class 8A-District 8 volleyball championship, their second in a row.
Leaning on its deep pool of heavy hitters led by Haley Coulter and her younger sister JoJo, Manatee beat PHU, also nicknamed the Hurricanes, 25-20, 25-19, 25-15.
After an errant serve clinched the title, Manatee celebrated on the court and was soon joined by the raucous members of the student section.
Manatee (20-5) trailed 8-6 in Game 1 before going on a 12-3 run fueled by two kills each from Haley and JoJo and a pair of aces by Jesse Durst, the lone senior on Manatee's roster.
The host Canes never
trailed again and will host Tampa Wharton on Tuesday in a Region 2 quarterfinal.
"The defense stepped up big time," said coach Tony Cothron, a district champ during his first year at Manatee. "If we play defense like that, teams are going to have a hard time beating us.
"They played really well, and I'm proud of them."
Durst had 10 digs while Haley Coulter had 17 to go with her 15 kills.
The win not only earned Manatee a trophy but a measure of revenge: Palm Harbor scored a 3-1 during the teams' regular-season meeting in Bradenton, which was Manatee's lone loss against a district opponent.
"We were determined. They were coming to our house, and we were not losing in our house," Durst said. "I have a lot people that were looking forward to this from last season. They were like, 'You better win.' We had a lot of tradition to uphold."
While Manatee's defense earned Cothron's praise, its offense gave PHU fits, especially Haley Coulter, who spent the match either hammering kills from the side or exploiting PHU's back row by hitting soft taps off uncovered parts of the floor.
JoJo Coulter had 12 kills. Her twin sister, Gabby, had 16 assists, and Gillian Cassidy added 13.
Manatee jumped to a 2-0 lead during last year's district final before PHU rallied to force a Game 5, which the local Hurricanes won.
There was no such drama this season.
And as happy as Cothron was for his girls, he acknowledged there is still plenty to do.
"This is the second step. There's four more steps to make," he said, "and we're trying to work hard to get there. I want them to enjoy (Thursday); they earned it."