BRADENTON -- Manatee entered its Class 8A state title defense Thursday with one question mark, and used a 3-0 blowout of Braden River to search for the answer.
With all but one player back from the Canes' 2014 championship team, head coach Tony Cothron hoped the Hurricanes' season-opener against the host Pirates (0-2) would go smoothly enough to cycle in his entire bench and get an extended look at all three Canes (1-0) vying for the starting libero position.
"You can put them in practice in the gym and see what they have, but (that doesn't matter) until you put them under the fire and see what you're gonna get from there," Cothron said. "There's still a decision to be made on that one position, and the best opportunity to do that, is to put them in game situations."
Manatee began its 3-0 (25-13, 25-14, 25-15) win against BRHS with its only newcomer on the floor. Inspiration transfer Kara Saylor started the game in the Hurricanes' red libero jersey and recorded one dig. She also helped the Hurricanes, who were mostly using starters at this point, to their biggest win of the night.
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"She needs to continue to really focus on what I'm trying to get her to do and I think she'll get there," Cothron said. "She's definitely got the skill, she's got the ability, the mental aspect, being able to stay focused because when this team gets under fire. They just somehow seem to channel it all on our side of the court, so she needs to make sure that she's able to do that with them."
After trailing 6-4, the Canes rattled off four straight points to take the lead for good. JoJo Coulter contributed two kills to the 4-0 run, and as soon as service returned to the Pirates, Coulter smashed another kill to set up another extended run. This one brought Coulter to the back line to serve and the outside hitter helped Manatee to another 4-0 run, stretching the lead to 14-8.
The second set was Grace Mumford's turn at defensive specialist -- she also had one dig -- and the Hurricanes once again climbed out of an early hole for an easy win. This time, the Canes only trailed 4-2 when they scored four straight to take the lead. BRHS evened the score at 7-7 before Coulter fired a pair of aces during a 5-0 run to push Braden River out of reach. The sophomore finished with a team-high 11 kills.
"Offensively we were almost there," Cothron said. "They need to also stay focused through a whole match."
For the final set, Manatee gave Alysha O'Dell a turn to play defensive specialist. A junior, O'Dell had two digs and is the most experienced of Manatee's three options. Against the Pirates, things operated equally as smoothly with all three in the game.
Manatee never trailed during the final set, jumping ahead 9-4 and forcing BRHS to call a timeout. The Hurricanes only ramped up the pressure, though, scoring eight of the next 11 points to build a 10-point lead and effectively seal the match.