WEEKI WACHEE - A spirited effort by Nature Coast could nonetheless prevent top-seeded Hernando from earning a regional berth Tuesday night.
Playing a Class 5A, District 7 Tournament semifinal at Weeki Wachee, the Lady Leopards defeated the fifth-seeded Lady Sharks, 25-23, 27-25, 25-27, 12-25, 15-11.
As a result, Hernando (16-5) garnered a spot in Thursday's final, and assured it'll play in next Tuesday's regional quarterfinals.
But this one played out much differently than the two regular-season meetings, both Lady Leopard sweeps.
"My personal opinion, I have girls that play volleyball, basketball and soccer and right now they've been double-dipping," said Hernando head coach Robin Bailey, who is also an assistant basketball coach. "I believe it's just too much. It's worn them down because they looked fatigued the whole time."
Nature Coast (6-19) gave Hernando a fight out of the gate, battling to an 18-18 tie during the first game.
With the Lady Leopards clinging to a 24-23 lead following an ace by Bianca Rodriguez that inexplicably hit the floor untouched, Ali Bronson fired a kill across the net that was deemed in by the line judge to give Hernando the game.
The call left Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore visibly upset, but the Lady Sharks hung around initially in the second before the Lady Leopards began to pull away.
Hernando opened a 20-12 advantage and was in front 24-18 when Nature Coast reeled off six unanswered points, five of them with Talicia Liles serving.
A kill by Zavana Schmit knotted it up at 24. After an exchange of side-outs, including an under the net call when it appeared the Lady Leopards had won the game, Tana McDaniel's kill gave possession back to Hernando, who staved off the furious comeback.
The Lady Sharks again hung around through the third and finally finished off a rally, storming back after being behind 22-17.
Then they dominated the fourth game, with Schmit serving 11 straight points with four aces to put Nature Coast on top, 17-7.
In the fifth, the Lady Sharks appeared on the verge of a major upset holding a 9-5 lead. Then McDaniel served seven points in a row while Bronson had three of her 17 kills in the game.
"They did that themselves," Bailey said. "I didn't know what else to do. I told them this was it; they've worked too hard through the season to end it like this. Tana McDaniel, our senior captain, got out there and gave a speech. I'm not sure what she said but I believe that's where they started rallying and stayed together."
Schmit had 12 kills to pace the Lady Sharks, who had defeated fourth-seeded Central in Monday's quarterfinals, 31-29, 25-14, 25-22.
"We had played Hernando close," Gore said. "We hadn't beat them in any sets but we had played them close. It's not like we were getting clobbered. I think having a strong game yesterday against Central gave them some confidence. I told them yesterday 'One more win and you're in the playoffs,' and that seemed to excite them. They were hungry.
"When they start well they can play well throughout. It's when they get down early. Even though we got down 0-2, pulling out the third game was huge. And Hernando got a little shaken, but then they stepped it up that fifth game."
Weeki Wachee clinches first regional berth
In just its third varsity season, Weeki Wachee clinched the first regional berth by any team in the young school's history.
The Lady Hornets defeated Wesley Chapel in the process later Tuesday night, 18-25, 25-15, 25-18, 26-24.
"The girls played very well," Weeki Wachee head coach Kelly Werkmeister said. "One of the things the girls wanted to do was make history at the school."
After initially falling behind 5-0 in the first game, third-seeded Wesley Chapel (6-16) rebounded to take a 12-9 lead when Abbie Devisfruto served five straight points.
But Weeki Wachee (16-9) responded in the second, as Miranda Werkmeister served five points with four aces to open up a 14-4 advantage.
The Lady Hornets carried that momentum through the third game, going up early and never letting the Lady Wildcats completely get back in it.
In the fourth, Wesley Chapel went ahead 8-5 with six points while Cynthia Hanak served. However, Weeki Wachee battled back and held a 21-16 edge.
With Devisfruto, who had 12 kills, serving, the Lady 'Cats rallied to tie it at 24 before a kill by Miranda Werkmeister and a block by Chreslyn Serama ended it.
"The last three games was a new rotation," said Coach Werkmeister, noting that the Lady Hornets had to change things around due to injuries. "They came together and adjusted to it as quick as possible with players going down. They played together as a team and did what was needed to win this."
Serama had 10 kills and Miranda Werkmeister eight to go with six aces. Alyssa Cupeles added seven aces.
Hernando and Weeki Wachee will face off for the fourth time this season, this time with the district title on the line Thursday at 7 p.m.
Hernando 3, Nature Coast 2
1 2 3 4 5
NCT 23 25 27 25 11
HER 25 27 25 12 15
Records - Nature Coast (6-19), Hernando (16-5).
Weeki Wachee 3, Wesley Chapel 1
1 2 3 4
WC 25 15 18 24
WW 18 25 25 26
Records - Wesley Chapel (6-16), Weeki Wachee (16-9).
Class 5A, District 7 Tournament
At Weeki Wachee
10-21No. 4 Central vs. No. 5 Nature Coast
Nature Coast def. Central, 31-29, 25-14, 25-22
No. 3 Wesley Chapel vs. No. 6 Zephyrhills
Wesley Chapel def. Zephyrhills, 25-16, 27-25, 25-18
No. 2 Weeki Wachee vs. No. 7 Pasco
Weeki Wachee def. Pasco, 25-19, 25-18, 25-16
10-22No. 1 Hernando vs. Nature Coast
Hernando def. Nature Coast, 25-23, 27-25, 25-27, 12-25, 15-11
No. 2 Weeki Wachee vs. No. 3 Wesley Chapel
Weeki Wachee def. Wesley Chapel, 18-25, 25-15, 25-18, 26-24
Hernando vs. Weeki Wachee, 7 p.m.