BRADENTON -- For the first time in its Class 8A-Region 2 championship match against Kissimmee Osceola, Manatee had a chance to take command and Jacqui Armer was jogging on to the floor. The match was tied at a set apiece and the Hurricanes led by two points in the third set when the middle blocker set up in front of the net -- and in front of Osceola star Aspen Dangren -- after a brief rest.
The Canes knocked down back-to-back points and turned a potenial Kowboy rally into just a side out. They cranked out three more points and again, Osceola couldn't score consecutively. Then they fired off five more in a row and a narrow lead in an up-for-grabs match ballooned for Manatee -- until the Hurricanes had fully rebounded from an opening-set loss to win the region final, 3-1 (22-25, 25-17, 25-17, 25-17), Tuesday in the Manatee High School gymnasium.
"When I started letting (Armer) drift into the angle a little bit, I think she was able to just key a little more on (Dangren)," head coach Tony Cothron said. "And that was our game plan. Take care of her."
Armer finished with eight kills and six blocks Tuesday in Bradenton. When she was on the floor, the complexion of the Canes' defense changed. The Kowboys played with a different style than most of the powers the Hurricanes (25-4) have faced this season and it left them off-balance early in the match before steadying to advance to the state semifinal.
Manatee, the defending 8A state champion, will go on the road Saturday to face Winter Springs, which swept West Garden West Orange 3-0 on Tuesday in the Region 1 championship.
The Hurricanes went into Tuesday's match without much knowledge about Osceola. The Canes caught the Kowboys (29-1) once when they played Orlando Timber Creek on Bright House
Sports Network and Cothron coached Dangren on a club team in the past.
Cothron had heard the team had pretty good size.
"I was like, 'Am I missing something?'" Cothron said after seeing Osceola didn't have a single player taller than 5 feet, 11 inches.
As an undersized team, the Kowboys played a different style of defense. They didn't block many shots, but racked up digs and positioned well along the back line. Instead of firing deep like they were often told, Manatee's hitters had to fire down, in front of the Osceola defense.
The Hurricanes were eventually able to take advantage as 6-footers Armer and outside hitter Haley Coulter were able to log eight and 15 kills, respectively.
"The small front row, we definitely took advantage of because no block is a good block for us," said Armer, who is verbally committed to Louisiana State.
Outside hitter JoJo Coulter added 12 kills and eight digs and even setter Gabby Coulter was able to record five kills by floating shots over the block to go along with her 39 assists. Haley Coulter, a Tulsa commit, and libero Kara Saylor finished with eight and 18 digs, respectively.
The Kowboys faded when Dangren did. The outside hitter scored six kills in the first set and three more in the first eight points of the second. For the rest of the match, the Canes limited her to 10 more, mostly when Armer was either serving or off the floor.
The game plan for Manatee worked, it just took the Hurricanes some time to implement it.
"I can understand why they're undefeated," Cothron said. "They set (Dangren) a lot of balls. Sets two, three and four we put them in a lot of positions where they had a hard time getting her the ball."