High School Sports

Manatee stumbles after taking early lead on Riverview in regular-season finale

Before Tuesday’s regular-season finale against Sarasota Riverview slipped out of hand, Manatee huddled around its bench with the match tied at one game apiece. A strong opening set had given way to a blowout loss during the second inside the gymnasium at Riverview High School, and the Hurricanes needed to regroup.

An empty paper cup sat in the middle of the crowd in front of the Canes’ bench and JoJo Coulter took aim. The outside hitter stomped on the piece of trash then stepped onto the court. Coulter slammed a pair of kills to the floor on the Rams’ side of the net to open the third set. She whacked two more for Manatee’s first four kills of the game. Three more gave her seven of the Hurricanes’ first nine kills in the set. Riverview’s lead, though, had grown to five points, where it would sit for most of the set in Sarasota.

“When you’re passing you’re a little more in system,” head coach Tony Cothron said, “and when you can’t get in system a lot and you’re hitting balls from outside the 10-foot line all the time, most of the time the team’s going to beat you and not have much of a problem with it.”

Coulter finished with 21 kills, but no other Cane cracked double digits. After jumping out to a lead with strong passing, Manatee eventually faded to a 19-25, 25-15, 25-16, 25-17 loss to the Rams, closing the season with a step back in Gabby Coulter’s return to the floor. The Hurricanes’ setter, who has been sidelined since the second game of the season by an ankle injury after back-to-back All-Area campaigns, was limited in her return as Cothron aims to have her as close to 100 percent as possible when the Canes (10-8, 3-1 Class 8A-District 11) open their district tournament Monday in Bradenton.

Coulter, who is JoJo Coulter’s twin sister, sat through the entire first set as defensive specialist Kara Saylor filled setting duty — she finished with a team-high 21 assists, plus 10 digs — and Manatee was able to hold on after a mid-game run. With outside hitter Grayson Hall serving, the Hurricanes reeled off seven straight points while JoJo Coulter and middle blocker Stefani Keller stifled Riverview (19-2, 6-0 Class 9A-District 6) at the net. During the run, Coulter and Keller combined for six blocks, five kills and a dig.

“We passed way better in the first set and then it just kind of disappeared on us,” Cothron said. “We just struggled with our passing. That’s what I attribute all three losses to.”

Two lopsided losses after an opening-game win left the Canes reeling into the fourth and final set. Manatee jumped out to a 7-6 lead only to falter once again, at one point allowing the Rams to score 14 of 17 points. As the match slipped away, Cothron called a timeout and ushered assistant Jocelyn Geraldson to take most of the team into a huddle. He pulled JoJo Coulter aside.

He saw Coulter pressing, trying to singlehandedly will the Hurricanes to a comeback win. He needed the Canes to get back into their system, and he’ll have to share the same message during practice for the next week. If Manatee falls to either Palmetto or Sarasota on Tuesday, its season will end shy of the 8A-11 semifinals. Tuesday, he hopes, provided a wakeup call.

“If there was any match to lose it was probably this match just because now the girls can go in the gym and say, ‘OK, we need to focus,’” Cothron said. “You lose your first game you’re done, so if you don’t pass you’re going to have an early season.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2