BRADENTON -- Heading into one of the biggest matches in program history, Manatee's head volleyball coach was nervous.
"I was more nervous than any match," said Tony Cothron, "I ever coached in."
It wasn't that he lacked confidence in his Hurricanes. Rather, he knows how hard it is to try and beat a team three times in a season, which is what Manatee had to do to the other Hurricanes, the ones hailing from Palm Harbor University, to reach a region final for the first time.
Cothron's worries were well-founded but capped with a sense of relief as Manatee outlasted PHU 3-2 in a Class 8A-Region 2 semifinal.
Haley Coulter's 30th and final kill of the night went untouched before hitting the floor, clinching a 15-12 win in Game 5 and setting off a wild celebration in Manatee's gym, which was a cauldron of noise through most of the tense, close match between a pair of district foes meeting for the fourth and final time this fall.
"It comes from the practice gym. We practice hard, we work hard," said junior Jacqui Armer, who had eight kills and 5 1/2 blocks. "We're used to playing hard against each other, and that's the best competition you can get.
"It's real exciting. My nerves are still going, and the adrenaline is rushing."
The Hurricanes (22-5) play for the Region 2 championship at 2 p.m. Saturday at Orlando Timber Creek. The winner reaches the Class 8A state final four next week and meets either Orange City University or Orlando Boone in a semifinal.
"Hats off to (PHU); they fought for every point," Cothron said. "I just think our girls wanted it a little bit more at the end."
The teams spent all night trading wins and played an epic third set that Manatee won 29-27. The local Hurricanes squandered a 22-15 lead, and PHU had game point four times before Coulter's kill gave Manatee a 28-27 lead, and a hitting error clinched the win.
PHU took Game 4 25-23 but Cothron found a silver lining. Manatee made a game of it despite falling behind 10-3.
"I would have worried more had we just rolled over in Game 4 and not fought back," Cothron said. "They worked hard, and we got the momentum."
That momentum carried over into Game 5, and Manatee appeared to take an 8-4 on a booming kill from Armer. But the officials called the Canes for an illegal rotation, giving PHU the point and the ball, and Manatee fell behind 11-9.
But Coulter recorded kills on three of Manatee's final four points to put the Canes a win away from the state semifinals in Kissimmee.
Jesse Durst, Manatee's lone senior, had 36 digs and 25 service points, while JoJo Coulter had 19 kills and her twin sister, Gabby, added 36 assists.
"Every single person contributed. It wasn't, 'Feed every ball to Haley,' or, "Feed every ball to Jacqui,'" Cothron said. "I can't stress enough how the team wants to win and play together so much as a family."
While walking to the match Tuesday, Gabby Coulter and some teammates found some rocks and put them inside paper cups for good luck.
It appears to have worked. And they will be making the trip to Orlando.
"They're coming with us," Gabby said, "everywhere."