BRADENTON -- Haley Coulter had a feeling something special was about to happen to Manatee volleyball.
She was sure it would happen next season, however, after the Hurricanes had a full year to gel and get used to one another.
It came one year early, however, though Coulter isn't complaining. Nor does she have much of a right, considering the greatest fall in the history of Hurricanes volleyball was largely her doing.
A junior who saved her best matches for the ones with the biggest stakes, Coulter is the Herald All-Area Volleyball Player of the Year after helping guide Manatee to the Class 8A state title, the first in program history.
"It's been a lot of fun," Coulter said. "People around school are like, 'So, how does it feel to be a state champion? When do you get the ring?'"
No Manatee volleyball player ever came close to gold prior to this season. The Hurricanes never advanced past the region semifinals before this year's edition got past Palm Harbor University.
And they just kept going, beating Orlando Timber Creek to win the Region 2 title before sweeping Orange City University in a Class 8A state semifinal. Not bad for a team with one senior on the roster and occasionally three freshmen in the starting lineup.
"We thought it was going to be a good season. But we thought next year, for sure, we'd have it because we would have all been playing together," Coulter said. "This year was even better."
It was a reunion of sorts, with Haley playing with her sisters --
freshman twins Gabby and JoJo -- and Grayson Hall, Gillian Cassidy and Jacqui Armer, bringing the whole group together for the first time since their club days. In the middle of everything, however, was Haley, who finished with 356 kills, 261 digs and 51 aces and was voted the state's player of the year in Class 8A.
Her biggest performance came during the state championship match when Manatee was routed by nationally ranked Jupiter during the first set. Continually offering encouragement after each play, Coulter took control of the match, totaling 18 kills and 14 digs as the Canes won in four sets.
In her team's biggest match, Coulter was the best offensive and defensive player on the court.
"We hadn't played many matches that challenged us. So when we played them, we knew that we had to play our A game and everybody had to step up," she said. "I was like, 'Come on guys, this isn't over. We can finish this.'"
They did, clinching the title on a Jupiter hitting error that soared out of bounds.
"It hadn't really hit us until we got all our medals," Haley said. "It was like, 'We just did that.'"
So what's next? Coulter has committed to Tulsa University, and Manatee, which graduates one senior, will have plenty of pressure to play through next fall.
Until then, Coulter will be playing club ball with Tampa United and focusing on a possible repeat.
"We want to do it again next year. We're the team to get now," she said. "We're going to try to do everything we can to be the top team again."