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Hernando High


TONY CASTRO Hernando Today correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:44 PM

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Before Monday night's Class 5A, District 7 Tournament opener at the Michael A. Imhoff Gymnasium, Nature Coast seemed to have Hernando's number.

How much so? The defending district champion Lady Sharks tormented Hernando by showing the Purple and Gold the door each of the past two seasons during the state series.

In Monday night's 1:55-hour match, the tables, however, turned.

The senior-laden and fourth-seeded Lady Leopards (12-9) completed a rare seasonal brooming with a 25-10, 25-22, 19-25, 25-23 nod over the young and fifth-seeded Lady Sharks (4-22).

With the victory, Hernando will journey Tuesday to Eustis to tangle with top-seeded Crystal River at 5 p.m.

Hernando, which solved Nature Coast twice during the regular season, enters Tuesday's semifinal with momentum by pocketing its sixth straight win.

The visiting Lady Sharks finished 1-10 on the road. Overall, Nature Coast dropped eight of its last nine matches.

Nature Coast, which fields a 14-member roster with two seniors (one graduating starter), out-served the hosts. The Lady Sharks converted 76-of-79 attempts (96 percent) compared to the Lady Leopards' 84-of-94 effort (89 percent).

In the two sets the Lady Sharks played exceptionally well (third and fourth), the visitors converted all 47 of their serving attempts.

Sophomore Mackenzie Cummings paced the Lady Sharks with 16 points on a perfect 16-of-16 from the service line.

Senior Courtney Skinner finished just behind with 15 points on 15-of-15 from the service stripe. Talicia Liles chipped in 14 points and Brittney Rodriguez finished in double figures with 11 points.

From the net, Skinner led the visitors with nine kills, as no other Lady Shark hitter found any rhythm.

Despite the setback, third-year Nature Coast skipper Emily Gore refused to look at her team's effort as a glass half empty.

"I was extremely proud of how we played in the third and fourth sets," acknowledged Gore. "A year of experience for this group will mean a lot next year."

On looking at the bigger picture, "This was a young group. We had all kinds of trouble playing with this much intensity early in the season," recalled Gore. "These girls have a lot to learn, but there's no substitution for experience. We only lose two girls, so that's encouraging.

"Unfortunately we're losing Courtney (Skinner). With all that she's done for us, she'll be really hard to replace."

By the team's own admission, Hernando's passing wasn't as crisp at it should have been, though the Lady Leopards kept the Lady Sharks at bay by distributing the ball along the front line.

Senior Ashley Sims and junior Tania McDaniel each crushed 12 kills while senior Ebone Plummer added nine.

From the service line, Hernando again enjoyed balance throughout the lineup with six players reaching double figures in scoring.

Seniors Kendall Raney and Nicole Cicero led the hosts with 16 points apiece. Cicero was a perfect 14-of-14 from the service line while Raney struggled behind a 13-of-17 effort.

Plummer and senior Layci Martin each chipped in 14 points followed by McDaniel (13) and Sims (12).

"This was a big win," declared the 17-year-old Raney. "This is the team that has beaten us the last few years in districts. It felt good beat them again."

On the Lady Leopards third set lack of focus, "It always seems we get to a point in every match where we all relax," noted Raney. "I think we can play better than we did tonight."

"Our passing was off," detected the 17-year-old Martin. "We weren't reading the defense as well as we have in the past. I thought we did a good job of keeping our composure."

With all the tribulations in the past with Nature Coast, "This was a big, big win," added Martin. "As a senior, my season is highlighted by beating them three times."

"I think we could have played with more intensity," noted the 16-year-old McDaniel. "Tomorrow we have to come out swinging against Crystal River. We played them tough last time. If we get behind we can't lay down.

"I think we're capable of playing a lot better than we did tonight."

Fourth-year Hernando skipper Patti Martin felt her team underperformed in the third set.

"All season long we've had this thing about the third game," she said. "We did it again tonight and let them back in the match. I really believe we haven't played our best match."

On her team's success, "This is a senior team. I don't think we've played up to our ability," emphasized Coach Martin. "The girls get along. There's no turmoil here. But for whatever reason there's a lack of fluidity."

On what Hernando needs most on Tuesday, "Our passing wasn't real sharp tonight," explained Coach Martin. "But that's our strength. I thought our two sophomores (Brianna Brady and Kaitlyn Jones) played really hard and so did Ashley (Sims). Tomorrow it can't be about one or two people, everybody has to be on."

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